Skip to main content

Full text of "The elementary forms of the religious life, a study in religious sociology"

See other formats








The Elementary Forms 

of the 

Religious Life 



M. A. 






This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. 
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private 
itudv, research, criticism or review, as permitted under 
the Copyright Act, ig^G, no portion may be reproduced 
hy any process without written permission. Enquiry 
should be made to the publisher. 

(g) George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1 9 1 5 






CûtO .% 



Subject of our Study : Religious Sociology and the Theory of 


I. — Principal subject of the book : analysis of the simplest religion known 
to determine the elementary forms of the religious life — Why they are 
more easily found and explained in the primitive religions 

II. — Secondary subject of research : the genesis of the fundamental 
notions of thought or the categories — Reasons for believing that 
their origin is religious and consequently social — How a way of 
restating the theory of knowledge is thus seen . . . . . j 



Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 

Usefulness of a preliminary definition of religion ; method to be followed 
in seeking this definition — Why the usual definitions should be 
examined first .......... 23 

I. — Religion defined by the supernatural and mysterious — Criticism : the 

nption of mystery is not primitive ....... 24 

II. — Religion defined in connection with the idea of God or a spiritual being. 
— Religions without gods — Rites in deistic religions which imply no 
idea of divinity .......... 29 

III. — Search for a positive definition — Distinction between beliefs and 

rites — Defiinition of beliefs — First characteristic : division of things 

^.between sacred and profane — Distinctive characteristics of this 

definition — Definition of rites in relation to beliefs — Definition of 

religion . . . . . , . - . . . .36 

IV. — Necessity of another characteristic to distinguish magic from 
religion — The idea of the Church — Do individualistic religions exclude 
the idea of a Church ?......... 42 

Leading Conceptions of the Elementary Religion 
I. — Animism 
Distinction of animism and naturism ....... 48 

I. — The three theses of animism ; Genesis of the idea of the soul ; Forma- 
tion of the idea of spirits ; Transformation of the cult of spirits into 
the cult of nature .......... 49 


vi Contents 


II. — Criticism of the first thesis — Distinction of the idea of the soul from 

that of a double — Dreams do not account for the idea of the soul . 55 

III. — Criticism of the second thesis — Death does not explain the trans- 
formation of a soul into a spirit — The cult of the souls of the dead is 
not primitive .......... 60 

IV. — Criticism of the third thesis — The anthromoporphic instinct — 
Spencer's criticism of it ; reservations on this point — Examination 
of the facts by which this instinct is said to be proved — Difference 
between a soul and the spirits of nature — Religious anthropomorphism 
is not primitive . . . . . . . . . . . 65 

\ V. — Conclusion : animism reduces religion to nothing more than a system 

of hallucinations .......... 68 


Leading Conceptions of the Elementary Religion — {continued) 

II. — Naturism 

History of the theory .......... 71 

I. — Exposition of Max MUller's naturism ...... 73 

II. — If the object of religion is to express natural forces, it is bard to see 
how it has maintained itself, for it expresses them in an erroneous 
manner — Pretended distinction between religion and mythology . 78 
III. — Naturism does not explain the division of things into sacred and 

profane ........... 84 



I. — Brief history of the question of totemism ...... 88 

II. — Reasons of method for which our study will be given specially to the 
totemism of Australia — The place which will be given to facts from 
America ........... 93 



ToTEMic Beliefs 
The Totem as Name and as Emblem 
I. — Definition of the clan — The totem as name of the clan — Nature of the 
things which serve as totems — Ways in which the totem is acquired 
— The totems of phratries ; of matrimonial classes . . . .102 

II. — ^The totem as emblem — Totem ic designs engraved or carved upon 

objects; tatooings or designs upon the body . . . . .113 

III. — Sacred character of the totemic emblem — The churinga — The 

nurtunja — The waninga — Conventional character of totemic emblems 119 


Totemic Beliefs — {continued) 
The Totemic Animal and Man 
I. — Sacred character of the totemic animals — Prohibition to eat them, kill 
them or pick the totemic plants — Different moderations given these 
prohibitions — Prohibition of contact — The sacred character of the 
animal is less marked than that of the emblem . . . .128 

Contents , vii 


II. — The man — His relationship with the totemic animal or plant — 
Different myths explaining this relationship — The sacred character 
of the man is more apparent in certain parts of the organism : the 
blood, hair, etc. — How this character varies with sex and age — 
Totemism is not plant or animal worship . . . . .134 

Totemic Beliefs — {continued) 
The Costnological System of Totemism and the Idea of Class 
I. — The classification of things into clans, phratries and classes . . 141 

II. — Genesis of the notion of class : the first classifications of things take 
their forms from society — Differences between the sentiment of the 
differences of things and the idea of class — Why this is of social origin 144 
III. — Religious significance of these classifications : all of the things 
classified into a clan partake of the nature of the totem and its sacred 
character — The cosmological system of totemism — Totemism as the 
tribal religion . . . . . . . . . .148 


Totemic Beliefs — {end) 

The Individual Totem and the Sexual Totem 

I. — Individual totem as a forename ; its sacred character — Individual 
totem as personal emblem — Bonds between the man and his indi- 
vidual totem — Relations with the collective totem . . . .157 

II. — The totems of sexual groups — Resemblances and differences with the 

collective and individual totems — Their tribal nature . . . 165 


Origins of these Beliefs 

Critical Examination of Preceding Theories 

I. — Theories which derive totemism from a previous religion : from the 
ancestor cult (Wilken and Tylor) ; from the nature cult (Jevons) — 
Criticism of these theories . . . . . . . . 1 68 

II. — Theories which derive collective totemism from individual totemism — 
Origins attributed by these theories to the individual totem (Frazer, 
Boas, Hill Tout) — Improbability of these hypotheses — Reasons 
showing the priority of the collective totem . . . . .172 

III. — Recent theory of Frazer : conceptional and local totemism — The 
begging of the question upon which it rests — The religious character 
of the totem is denied — Local totemism is not primitive . . .180 

IV. — Theory of Lang : that the totem is only a name — Difficulties in 
explaining the religious character of totemic practices from this point 
of view ........... 184 

V. — All these theories explain totemism only by postulating other religious 

notions anterior to it . . . . . . . . .186 


Origins of these Beliefs — {continued) 

The Notion of the Totemic Principle, or M ana, and the Idea of Force 

L — The notion of the totemic force or principle — Its ubiquity — Its 

character at once physical and moral . . . . . .188 

viii Contents 


II. — Analogous conceptions in other inferior societies — The gods in Samoa, 
the wakan of the Sioux, the orenda of the Iroquigs, the mana of 
Melanesia — Connection of these notions with totemism — The Arun- 
kulta of the Arunta ......... 191 

III. — Logical priority of impersonal force over the difiEerent mjrthical 

personalities — Recent theories which tend to admit this priority . 198 

IV. — The notion of religious force is the prototype of that of force in 

general ........... 203 


Origins of these Beliefs — {end) 

Origin of the Idea of the Totemic Principle or Mana 

I. — The totemic principle is the clan, but thought of under a more empirical 

form ............ 205 

II. — General reasons for which society is apt to awaken the sensation of the 
sacred and the divine — Society as an imperative moral force ; the 
notion of moral authority — Society as a force which raises the indi- 
vidual outside of himself — Facts which prove that society creates the 
sacred ........... 206 

III. — Reasons peculiar to Australian societies — The two phases through 
which the life of these societies alternatively passes : dispersion, con- 
centration — Great collective effervescence during the periods of 
concentration — Examples — How the religious idea is bom out of this 
effervescence .......... 214 

Why collective force has been thought of under totemic forms : it is the 
totem that is the emblem of the clan — Explanation of the principal 
totemic beliefs . . . . . . . . . .219 

IV. — Religion is not the product of fear — It expresses something real — Its 
essential idealism — This idealism is a general characteristic of collective 
mentality — Explanation of the external character of religious forces 
in relation to their subjects — The principle that the part is equal to 
the whole ........... 223 

V. — Origin of the notion of emblem : emblems a necessary condition of 
collective representations — Why the clan has taken its emblems from 
the animal and vegetable kingdoms . . . . . .230 

VI. — The proneness of the primitive to confound the kingdoms and 
classes which we distinguish — Origins of these confusions — How 
they have blazed the way for scientific explanations — They do not 
exclude the tendency towards distinction and opposition . . . 

The Idea of the Soul 

I. — Analysis of the idea of the soul in the Australian societies . . . 240 

II. — Genesis of this idea — The doctrine of reincarnation according to 
Spencer and Gillen : it implies that the soul is a part of the totemic 
principle — Examination of the facts collected by Strehlow ; they 
confirm the totemic nature of the soul ...... 246 

III. — Generality of the doctrine of reincarnation — Diverse facts in support 

of the proposed genesis ........ 256 

IV. — Antithesis of the soul and the body : what there is objective in this — 
Relations of the individual soul with the collective soul — The idea of 
the soul is not chronologically after that of mana .... 262 

V. — Hypothesis to explain the belief in its survival .... 267 

VI. — The idea of a soul and the idea of a person ; impersonal eleipents in 

the personality .......... 269 

Contents ix 

The Idea of Spirits and Gods 


I. — Difference between a soul and a spirit — The souls of the mythical 
ancestors are spirits, having determined functions — Relations between 
the ancestral spirit, the individual soul and the individual totem — 
Explanation of this latter — Its sociological significance . . -273 

II. — Spirits and magic ......... 281 

III. — The civilizing heroes ......... 283 

IV, — The great gods — Their origin — Their relations with the totemic 

system — Their tribal and international character .... 285 

V. — Unity of the totemic system ........ 295 



The Negative Cult and its Functions 
The Ascetic Rites 

I. — The system of interdictions — Magic and religious interdictions — 
Interdictions between sacred things of different sorts — Interdictions 
between sacred and profane — These latter are the basis of the negative 
cult — Leading types of these interdictions ; their reduction to two 
essential types .......... 299 

II. — The observance of interdictions modifies the religious state of indivi- 
viduals — Cases where this efficacy is especially apparent : ascetic 
practices — The religious efficacy of sorrow — Social function of 
asceticism ........... 309 

III. — Explanation of the system of interdictions : antagonism of the 

sacred and the profane, contagiousness of the sacred . . -317 

IV. — Causes of this contagiousness — It cannot be explained by the laws 
of the association of ideas — It is because religious forces are outside 
of their subjects — Logical interest in this property of religious forces 321 


The Positive Cult 

I. — The Elements of Sacrifice 

The Intichiuma ceremony in the tribes of Central Australia — Different 

forms which it presents ........ 326 

I- — The Arunta Form — The two phases — Analysis of the first : visit to 
sacred places, scattering of sacred dust, shedding of blood, etc., to 
assure the reproduction of the totemic species .... 327 

H- — Second phase : ritual consumption of the totemic plant or animal . 333 

III. — Interpretation of the complete ceremony — The second rite consists 

in a communion meal — Reason for this communion . . . 336 

IV. — The rites of the first phase consists in oblations — Analogies with 
sacrificial oblations — The Intichiuma thus contains the two elements 
of sacrifice^ — Interest of these facts for the theory of sacrifice . . 340 

V. — On the pretended absurdity of sacrificial oblations — How they are 
explained : dependence of sacred beings upon their worshippers — 
Explanation of the circle in which sacrifice seems to move — Origin of 
the periodicity of positive rites ....... 344 

X Contents 

The Positive Cult — {continued) 
II. — Imitative Rites and the Principle of Causality p^^.^ 

T. — Nature of the imitative rites — Examples of ceremonies where they 

are employed to assure the fertility of the species .... 351 

II. — They rest upon the principle : like produces like — Examination of the 
explanation of this given by the anthropological school — Reasons why 
they imitate the animal of plant — Reasons for attributing a physical 
eâicacy to these gestures — Faith — In what sense it is founded upon 
experience — The principles of magic are bom in religion . . . 355 

III. — The preceding principle considered as one of the first statements 
of the principle of causality — Social conditions upon which this latter 
depends — The idea of impersonal force or power is of social origin — 
The necessity for the conception of causality explained by the 
authority inherent in social imperatives ...... 362 

The Positive Cult — (continued) 
III. — Representative or Commemorative Rites 
I. — Representative rites with physical efhcacy — Their relations with the 

ceremonies already described — Their action is wholly moral . . 371 

II. — Representative rites without physical efificacy — They confirm the 
preceding results — The element of recreation in religion : its impor- 
tance ; its reason for existence — The idea of a feast . . «376 
III. — Ambiguity of function in the various ceremonies studied ; they 
substitute themselves for each other — How this ambiguity confirms 
the theory proposed ......... 38^ 

PiAcuLAR Rites and the Ambiguity of the Notion of Sacredness 
Definition of the piacular rite ........ 38g 

I. — Positive rites of mourning — Description of these rites . . . 390 

II. — How they are explained — They are not a manifestation of private 
sentiments — The malice attributed to the souls of the dead cannot 
account for them either — They correspond to the state of mind in 
which the group happens to be — Analysis of this state — How it ends 
by mourning — Corresponding changes in the way in which the souls 
of the dead are conceived ........ 396 

III. — Other piacular rites ; after a public moiuming, a poor harvest, a 
drought, the southern lights — Rarity of these rites in Australia — 
How they are explained ........ 403 

IV. — The two forms of the sacred : the pure and the impure — Their 
antagonism — Their relationship — Ambiguity of the idea of the 
sacred — All rites present the same character ..... 409 


To what extent the results obtained may be generalized . . . .415 

I. — Religion rests upon an experience that is well founded but not 
privileged — Necessity of a science to reach the reality at the bottom 
of this experience — What is this reality ? — The human groups — 
Human meaning of religion — Concerning the objection which opposes 
the ideal society to the real society . . . . . .416 

How religious individualism and cosmopolitanism are explained in this 

theory ........... 424 

Contents xi 


II. — The eternal element in religion — Concerning the conflict between 
i.-'-^cience and religion ; it has to do solely with the speculative side of 

religion — What this side seems destined to become . . . .427 

III. — How has society been able to be the source of logical, that is to 
say conceptual, thought ? Definition of the concept : not to be con- 
founded with the general idea ; characterized by its impersonality and 
communicability — It has a collective origin — The analysis of its 
contents bears witness in the same sense — Collective representations 
as types of ideas which individuals accept — In regard to the objection 
that they are impersonal only on condition of being true — Con- 
ceptual thought is coeval with humanity ..... 431 

IV. — How the categories express social things — The chief category is the 
concept of totality which could be suggested only by society — Why 
the relations expressed by the categories could become conscious only 
in society — Society is not an a logical being — How the categories tend 
to detach themselves from geographically determined groups . . 439 

The unity of science on the one hand, and of morals and religion on the 
other — How the society accounts for this unity — Explanation of the 
rôle attributed to society : its creative power — Reactions of sociology 
upon the science of man ........ 445 





IN this book we propose to study the most primitive and simple 
religion which is actually known, to make an analysis of it, 
and to attempt an explanation of it. A religious system may be 
said to be the most primitive which we can observe when it fulfils 
the two following conditions : in the first place, when it is found 
in a society whose organization is surpassed by no others in 
simplicity ; ^ and secondly, when it is possible to explain it 
without making use of any element borrowed from a previous 

We shall set ourselves to describe the organization of this 
system with all the exactness and fidelity that an ethnographer 
or an historian could give it. But our task will not be limited to 
that : sociology raises other problems than history or ethno- 
graphy. It does not seek to know the passed forms of civilization 
with the sole end of knowing them and reconstructing them. But 
rather, like every pqsitive_sçience, it has as its object the ex- 
planation of some actual reality which is near to us, and which 
consequently is capable of affecting our ideas and our acts : this 
reality is man, and more precisely, the man of to-day, for there is 
nothing which we are more interested in knowing. Then we are 
not going to study a very archaic religion simply for the pleasure 
of telling its peculiarities and its singularities. If we have taken 

^ In the same way, we shall say of these societies that they are primitive, 
and we shall call the men of these societies primitives. Undoubtedly the expres- 
sion lacks precision, but that is hardly evitable, and besides, when we have 
taken pains to fix the meaning, it is not inconvenient. 

2 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

it as the subject of our research, it is because it has seemed to us 
better adapted than any other to lead to an understanding of the 
reUgious nature of man, that is to say, to show us an essential and 
permanent aspect of humanity. 

But this proposition is not accepted before the raising of strong 
objections. It seems very strange that one must turn back, and 
be transported to the very beginnings of history, in order to arrive 
at an understanding of humanity as it is at present. This manner 
of procedure seems particularly paradoxical in the question which 
concerns us. In fact, the various religions generally pass as being 
quite unequal in value and dignity ; it is said that they do not all 
contain the same quota of truth. Then it seems as though one 
could not compare the highest forms of religious thought with the 
lowest, without reducing the first to the level of the second. If 
we admit that the crude cults of the Australian tribes can help us 
to understand Christianity, for example, is that not supposing 
that this latter religion proceeds from the same mentality as the 
former, that it is made up of the same superstitions and rests 
upon the same errors ? This is how the theoretical importance 
which has sometimes been attributed to primitive religions has 
come to pass as a sign of a systematic hostility to all religion, 
which, by prejudging the results of the study, vitiates them in 

There is no occasion for asking here whether or not there are 
scholars who have merited this reproach, and who have made 
religious history and ethnology a weapon against religion. In 
any case, a sociologist cannot hold such a point of view. In fact, 
it is an essential postulate of sociology that a human institution 
cannot rest upon an error and a lie, without which it could not 
exist. If it were not founded in the nature of things, it would 
have encountered in the facts a resistance over which it could 
never have triumphed. So when we commence the study of 
primitive religions, it is with the assurance that they hold to 
reality and express it ; this principle wiU be seen to re-enter again 
and again in the course of the analyses and discussions which 
follow, and the reproach which we make against the schools from 
which we have separated ourselves is that they have ignored it. 
When only the letter of the formulae is considered, these religious 
beliefs and practices undoubtedly seem disconcerting at times, 
and one is tempted to attribute them to some sort of a deep- 
rooted error. But one must know how to go underneath the 
symbol to the reality which it represents and which gives it its 
meaning. The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and 
the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of 
hfe, either individual or social. The reasons with which the 

Subject of our Study 3 

faithful justify them may be, and generally are, erroneous ; but 
the true reasons do not cease to exist, and it is the duty of science 
to discover them. 

In reality, then, there are no rehgions which are false. All are 
true in their own fashion ; all answer, though in different ways, 
to the given conditions of human existence. It is undeniably 
possible to arrange them in a hierarchy. Some can be called 
superior to others, in the sense that they call into play higher 
mental functions, that they are richer in ideas and sentiments, 
that they contain more concepts with fewer sensations and 
images, and that their arrangement is wiser. But howsoever real 
this greater complexity and this higher ideality may be, they are 
not sufficient to place the corresponding religions in different 
classes. All are religions equally, just as all living beings are 
equally alive, from the most humble plastids up to man. So when 
we turn to primitive religions it is not with the idea of depreciating 
religion in general, for these religions are no less respectable than 
the others. They respond to the same needs, they play the same 
rôle, they depend upon the same causes ; they can also well serve 
to show the nature of the religious life, and consequently to resolve 
the problem which we wish to study. 

But why give them a sort of prerogative ? Why choose them 
in preference to all others as the subject of our study ? — It is 
merely for reasons of method. 

In the first place, we cannot arrive at an understanding of the 
most recent religions except by following the manner in which 
they have been progressively composed in history. In fact, 
h istorical analy sis is the only means of explanation which it is 
possible to apply to them. It alone enables us to resolve an 
institution into its constituent elements, for it shows them to us 
as they are born in time, one after another. On the other hand, 
by placing every one of them in the condition where it was born, 
it puts into our hands the only means we have of determining the 
causes which gave rise to it. Every time that we undertake to 
explain something human, taken at a given moment in history — 
be it a religious belief, a moral precept, a legal principle, an 
aesthetic style or an economic system — it is necessary to commence 
by going back to its most primitive and simple-form,_jtû try to 
account for the characteristics by which it was marked at that 
time, and then to show how it developed and became complicated 
httle by little, and how it became that which it is at the moment 
in question. One readily understands the importance which the 
determination of the point of departure has for this series of pro- 
gressive explanations, for all the others are attached to it. It was 

4 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

one of Descartes's principles that thefiist ring has a predominating 
place in the chain of scientific truths But there is no question of 
placing at the foundation of the science of religions an idea 
elaborated after the cartesian manner, that is to say, a logical 
concept, a pure possibility, constructed simply by force of thought. 
What we must find is a concrete jeality, and historical and ethno- 
logical observation alone can reveal that to us. But even if this 
cardinal conception is obtained by a different process than that of 
Descartes, it remains true that it is destined to have a considerable 
influence on the whole series of propositions which the science 
establishes. Biological evolution has been conceived quite 
differently ever since it has been known that monocellular beings 
do exist. In the same way, the arrangement of religious facts is 
explained quite differently, according as we put naturism, 
animism or some other religious form at the beginning of the 
evolution. Even the most specialized scholars, if they are un- 
willing to confine themselves to a task of pure erudition, and if 
they desire to interpret the facts which they analyse, are obliged 
to choose one of these hypotheses, and make it their starting- 
point. Whether they desire it or not, the questions which they 
raise necessarily take the following form : how has naturism or 
animism been led to take this particular form, here or there, or to 
enrich itself or impoverish itself in such and such a fashion ? 
Since it is impossible to avoid taking sides on this initial problem, 
and since the solution given is destined to affect the whole science, 
it must be attacked at the outset : that is what we propose to do. 

Besides this, outside of these indirect reactions, the study of 
primitive religions has of itself an immediate interest which is of 
primary importance. 

If it is useful to know what a certain particular religion consists 
in, it is still more important to know what religion in general is. 
This is the problem which has aroused the interest of philosophers 
in all times ; and not without reason, for it is of interest to all 
humanity. Unfortunately, the method which they generally 
employ is purely dialectic : they confine themselves to analysing 
the idea which they make for themselves of religion, except as 
they illustrate the results of this mental analysis by examples 
borrowed from the religions which best realize their ideal. But 
even if this method ought to be abandoned, the problem remains 
intact, and the great service of philosophy is to have prevented 
its being suppressed by the disdain of scholars. Now it is possible 
to attack it in a different way. Since all religions can be com- 
pared to each other, and since all are specie s of the same^ ass, 
there are necessarily many elements which are common to all. 
We do not mean to speak simply of the outward and visible 

Subject of our Study 5 

characteristics which they all have equally, and which make it 
possible to give them a provisional definition from the very outset 
of our researches; the discovery of these apparent signs is relatively 
easy, for the observation which it demands does not go beneath 
the surface of things. But these external resemblances suppose' 
others which are profound. At the foundation of all systems o: 
beliefs and of all cults there ought necessarily to be a certain^ 
number of fundamental representations or conceptions and o: 
ritual attitudes which, in spite of the diversity of forms whic 
they have taken, have the same objective significance and ful: 
the same functions everywhere. These are the permanent 
elements which constitute that which is permanent and human 
in religion ; they form all the objective contents of the idea which 
is expressed when one speaks of religion in general. How is it 
possible to pick them out ? 

Surely it is not by observing the complex religions which appear 
in the course of history. Every one of these is made up of such 
a variety of elements that it is very difficult to distinguish what 
is secondary from what is principal, the essential from the 
accessory. Suppose that the religion considered is like that of 
Egypt, India or the classical antiquity. It is a confused mass of 
many cults, varying according to the locality, the temples, the 
generations, the dynasties, the invasions, etc. Popular super- 
stitions are there confused with the purest dogmas. Neither the 
thought nor the activity of the religion is evenly distributed 
among the believers ; according to the men, the environment 
and the circumstances, the beliefs as well as the rites are thought 
of in different ways. Here they are priests, there they are 
monks, elsewhere they are laymen ; there are mystics and 
rationalists, theologians and prophets, etc. In these conditions it 
is difficult to see what is common to all. In one or another of 
these systems it is quite possible to find the means of making a 
profitable study of some particular fact which is specially 
developed there, such as sacrifice or prophecy, monasticism or 
the mysteries ; but how is it possible to find the co mmon fo u nda- 
tion jDf the religious life underneath the luxuriant~vëgitâtion 
which covers it ? How is it possible to find, underneath the 
disputes of theology, the variations of ritual, the multiplicity of 
groups and the diversity of individuals, the fundamental states 
characteristic of religious mentality in general ? 

Things are quite different in the lower societies. The slighter 
development of individuality, the small extension of the group, 
the homogeneity of external circumstances, all contribute to 
reducing the differences and variations to a minimum. The 
group has an intellectual and moral conformity of which we find 

6 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

but rare examples in the more advanced societies. Everything 
is common to all. Movements are stereotyped ; everybody 
performs the same ones in the same circumstances, and this 
conformity of conduct only translates the conformity of thought. 
Every mind being drawn into the same eddy, the individual 
type nearly confounds itself with that of the race. And while all 
is uniform, all is simple as well. Nothing is deformed like these 
myths, all composed of one and the same theme which is endlessly 
repeated, or like these rites made up of a small number of gestures 
repeated again and again. Neither the popular imagination nor 
that of the priests has had either the time or the means of refining 
and transforming the original substance of the religious ideas 
and practices ; these are shown in all their nudity, and offer them- 
selves to an examination, it requiring only the slightest effort to 
lay them open. That which is accessory or secondary, the develop- 
ment of luxury, has nof yet come to hide the principal elements. ^ 
All is reduced to that which is indispensable, to that without 
which there could be no religion. But that which is indispensable 
is also that which is essential, that is to say; that which we must 
know before all else. 

Primitive civilizations offer privileged cases, then, because they 
are simple cases. That is why, in all fields of human activity, the 
observations of ethnologists have frequently been veritable 
revelations, which have renewed the study of human institutions. 
For example, before the middle of the nineteenth century, every- 
body was convinced that the father was the essential element of 
the family ; no one had dreamed that there could be a family 
organization of which the paternal authority was not the key- 
stone. But the discovery of Bachofen came and upset this old 
conception. Up to very recent times it was regarded as evident 
that the moral and legal relations of kindred were only another 
aspect of the psychological relations which result from a common 
descent ; Bachofen and his successors, MacLennan, Morgan and 
many others still laboured under this misunderstanding. But 
since we have become acquainted with the nature of the primitive 
clan, we know that, on the contrary, relationships cannot be 
explained by consanguinity. To return to religions, the study 
of only the most familiar ones had led men to believe for a long 
time that the idea of god was characteristic of everything that is 
religious. Now the religion which we are going to study presently 

1 But that is not equivalent to saying that all luxury is lacking to the primitive 
cults. On the contrary, we shall see that in every religion there are beliefs and 
practices which do not aim at strictly utilitarian ends (Bk. Ill, ch. iv, § 2). This 
luxury is indispensable to the religious life ; it is at its very heart. But it is 
much more rudimentary in the inferior religions than in the others, so we are 
better able to determine its reason for existence here. 

Subject of our Study y 

is, in a large part, foreign to all idea of divinity ; the forces to 
which the rites are there addressed are very different from those 
which occupy the leading place in our modem religions, yet they 
aid us in understanding these latter forces. So nothing is more 
unjust than the disdain with which too many historians still 
regard the work of ethnographers. Indeed, it is certain that 
ethnology has frequently brought about the most fruitful revo- 
lutions in the different branches of sociology. It is for this same «^ 
reason that the discovery of unicellular beings, oTwhiçh we just ^.^^"^ 
spokéTTîas transformed the current idea of life. Since in these 
very simple beings, life is reduced to its essential traits, these are 
less easily misunderstopd. 

BuTprimitive religions do not merely aid us in disengaging the 
constituent elements of religion ; they also, have the great ad- 
vantage that they facilitate the explanation of it. Since the 
facts there are simpler, the relations between them are more 
apparent. The reasons with whteh then account for their acts 
have not yet been elaborated and denatured by studied reflection ; 
they are nearer and more closely related to the motives which 
have really determined, these acts. In order to understand an 
hallucination perfectly, and give it its most appropriate treat- 
ment, a physician must know its original point of departure. 
Now this event is proportionately easier to find if he can observe 
it near its beginnings. The longer the disease is allowed to de- 
velop, the more it evades observation ; that is because all sorts of 
interpretations have intervened as it advanced, which tend to 
force the original state into the background, and across which 
it is frequently difficult to find the initial one. Between a 
systematized hallucination and the first impressions which gave 
it birth, the distance is often considerable. It is the same thing 
with religious thought. In proportion as it progresses in history, 
the causes which called it into existence, though remaining active, 
are no longer perceived, except across a vast scheme of inter- '"' 

pretations which quite transform them. Popular mythologies 
and subtile theologies have done their work : they have super- 
imposed upon the primitive sentiments others which are quite 
different, and which, though holding to the first, of which they are 
an elaborated form, only allow their true nature to appear very 
imperfectly. The psychological gap between the cause and the 
effect, between the apparent cause and the effective cause, has 
become more considerable and more difficult for the mind to 
leap. The remainder of this book will be an illustration and a 
verification of this remark on method. It will be seen how, in 
the primitive religions, the religious fact still visibly carries the -^ 
mark of its origins : it would have been well-nigh impossible 

8 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

to infer them merely from the study of the more developed 

The study which we are undertaking is therefore a way of 
taking up again, but under new conditions, the old problem of the 
origin of religion. To be sure, if by origin we are to understand 
the very first beginning, the question has nothing scientific about 
it, and should be resolutely discarded. There was no given 
moment when religion began to exist, and there is consequently 
no need pi finding a means of transporting ourselves thither in 
thought. " Like every human institution, religion did not com- 
mence anjrwhere. Therefore, all speculations of this sort are justly 
discredited ; they can only consist in subjective and arbitrary 
constnictions which are subject to no sort of control. ,-But the 
problem which we raise is quite another one. What vve want to 
do is to find a means of discerning the ever-present cause s upon 
which the most essential forms of religious thought and practice 
depend. Now for the reasons which were just set forth, these 
causes are proportionately more easily observable as the societies 
where they are observed are less complicated. That is why we 
try to get as near as possible to the origins.^ It is not that we 
ascribe particular virtues to the lower religions. On the cpntrary, 
they are rudimentary and gross ; we cannot make of them a sort 
of model which later religions only have to reproduce. But even 
their grossness makes them instructive, for they thus become 
convenient for experiments, as in them, the facts and their 
relations are easily seen. In order to discover the laws of the 
phenomena which he studies, the physicist tries to simplify these 
latter and rid them of their secondary characteristics. For that 
which concerns institutions, nature spontaneously makes the 
same sort of simplifications at the beginning of history. We 
merely wish to put these to profit. Undoubtedly we can only 
touch very elementary facts by this method. When we shall 
have accounted for them as far as possible, the novelties of every 
sort which have been produced in the course of evolution will 
not yet be explained. But while we do not dream of denying the 
importance of the problems thus raised, we think that they will 
profit by being treated in their turn, and that it is important to 
take them up only after those of which we are going to undertake 
the study at present. 

^ It is seen that we give a wholly relative sense to this word " origins," just 
as to the word ' primitive." By it we do not mean an absolute beginning, but 
the most simple social condition that is actually known or that beyond which 
we cannot go at present. When we speak of the origins or of the commencement 
of religious history or thought, it is in this sense that our statements should be 

Subject of our Study 


But our study is not of interest merely for the science of 
religion. In fact, every religion has one side by which it over- 
laps the circle of properly religious ideas, and there, the study 
of religious phenomena gives a means of renewing the problems 
which, up to the present, have only been discussed among 

For a long time it has been known that the first systems of 
representations with which men have pictured to themselves the 
world and themselves were of religious origin. There is no religion 
that is not a cosmology at the same time that it is a speculation — 
upon divine things. If philosophy and the sciences were bom 
of religion, it is because religion began by taking the place of ( 
the sciences and philosophy. But it has been less frequently- 
noticed that religion has not confined itself to enriching the 
human intellect, formed beforehand, with a certain number 
of ideas ; it has contributed to forming the intellect itself. Men 
owe to it not only a good part of the substance of their 
knowledge, but also the form in which this knowledge has been 

At the roots of all our judgments there are a certain number of 
essential ideas which dominate all our intellectual life ; they are 
what philosophers since A ristotle have called the categories of 
the understanding : ideas oftime, space, ^ class, number, cause, 
substance, personality, etc. They correspond to the most uni- 
versal properties of things. They are like the solid frame which 
encloses all thought ; this does not seem to be able to liberate 
itself from them without destroying itself, for it seems that we 
cannot think of objects that are not in time and space, which 
have no number, etc. Other ideas are contingent and unsteady ; 
we can conceive of their being unknown to a man, a society or 
an epoch ; but these others appear to be nearly inseparable from 
the normal working of the intellect. They are like the frame- 
worlj of the intelligence. Now when primitive religious belief s are 
systematically analysed, the principal categories are naturally 
found. They are born in religion and of religion ; they are 
a product of religious thought. This is a statement that we 
are going to have occasion to make many times in the course 
of this work. 

* We say that time and space are categories because there is no difference 
between the rôle played by these ideas in the intellectual life and that which 
falls to the ideas of class or cause (on this point see, Hamelin, Essai sur les- 
éléments principaux de la représentation, pp. 63, 76). 


10 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

This remark has some interest of itself already ; but here is 
what gives it its real importance. 

The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before 
him is that religion-iS- Something eminently socia l. Religious 
representations are collective representations which express 
collective realities ; the rites are a manner of acting which take 
rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined 
to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these 
groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to 
participate in this nature common to all religious facts ; they too 
should be social affairs and the product of collective thought. At 
least — for in the actual condition of our knowledge of these matters, 
one should be careful to avoid all radical and exclusive statements 
— it is allowable to suppose that they are rich in social elements. 

Even at present, these can be imperfectly seen in some of them. 
For example, try to represent what the notion of tim e would be 
without the processes by which we divide it, measure it or express 
it with objective signs, a time which is not a succession of years, 
months, weeks, days and hours ! This is something nearly un- 
thinkable. We cannot conceive of time, except on condition of 
distinguishing its different moments. Now what is the origin of 
this differentiation ? Undoubtedly, the states of consciousness 
which we have already experienced can be reproduced in us in 
the same order in which they passed in the first place ; thus 
portions of our past become present again, though being clearly 
distinguished from the present. But howsoever important this 
distinction may be for our private experience, it is far from being 
enough to constitute the notion or category of time. This does 
not consist merely in a commemoration, either partial or integral, 
of our past life. It is an abstract and impersonal frame which 
surrounds, not only our individual existence, but that of all 
humanity. It is like an endless chart, where all duration is spread 
out before the mind, and upon which all possible events can be 
located in relation to fixed and determined guide lines. It is not 
my time that is thus arranged ; it is time in general, such as it is 
objectively thought of by everybody in a single civilization. That 
aJone is enough to give us a hint that such an arrangement ought 
to be collective. And in reality, observation proves that these 
indispensable guide lines, in relation to which all things are 
temporally located, are taken from social life. The divisions into 
days, weeks, months, years, etc., correspond to the periodical 
recurrence of rites, feasts, and public ceremonies.^ A calendar 

' See the support given this assertion in Hubert and Mauss, Mélanges 
d'Histoire des Religions [Travaux de l'Année Sociologique), chapter on La Repré- 
sentation du Temps dans la Religion. 

Subject of our Study ii 

expresses the rh3rthm of the collective activities, while at the same 
time its function is to assure their regularity. ^ 

It is the same thing with space. As Hamelin has shown, ^ 
space is not the vague and inaetermined medium which Kant 
imagined ; if purely and absolutely homogeneous, it would be 
of no use, and could not be grasped by the mind. Spatial 
representation consists essentially in a primary co-ordination 
of the data of sensuous experience. But this co-ordination would 
be impossible if the parts of space were qualitatively equivalent 
and if they were really interchangeable. To dispose things 
spatially there must be a possibility of placing them differently, of 
putting some at the right, others at the left, these above, those 
below, at the north of or at the south of, east or west of, etc., etc., 
just as to dispose states of consciousness temporally there must 
be a possibility of localizing them at determined dates. That 
is to say that space could not be what it is if it were not, like 
time, divided and differentiated. But whence come these 
divisions which are so essential ? By themselves, there are 
neither right nor left, up nor down, north nor south, etc. All 
these distinctions evidently come from the fact that different 
sympathetic values have been attributed to various regions. Since 
all the men of a single civilization represent space in the same way, 
it is clearly necessary that these sympathetic values, and the 
distinctions which depend upon them, should be equally universal, 
and that almost necessarily implies that they be of social origin.* 

Besides that, there are cases where this social character is 
made manifest. There are societies in Australia and North 
America where space is conceived in the form of an immense 
circle, because the camp has a circular form ;* and this spatial 
circle is divided 'up exactly like the tribal circle, and is in its 

^ Thus we see all the difierence which exists between the group of sensations 
and images which serve to locate us in time, and the category of time. The 
first are the summary of individual experiences, which are of value only for the 
person who experienced them. But what the category of time expresses is a 
time common to the group, a social time, so to speak. In itself it is a veritable 
social institution. Also, it is peculiar to man ; animals have no representations 
of this sort. 

This distinction between the category of time and the correspondmg sensa- 
tions could be made equally well in regard to space or cause. Perhaps this would 
aid in clearing up certain confusions which are maintained by the controversies 
of which these questions are the subject. We shall return to this point in the 
conclusion of the present work (§4). * Op. cit., pp. 75 ff. 

' Or else it would be necessary to admit that all individuals, in virtue of 
their organo-physical constitution, are spontaneously affected in the same 
manner by the different parts of space : which is more improbable, especially 
as in themselves the different regions are sympathetically indifferent. Also, 
the divisions of space vary with different societies, which is a proof that they are 
not founded exclusively upon the congenital nature of man. 

* See Durkheim and Mauss, De quelques formes primitives de classification, 
in Année Sociologique, VI, pp. 47 ff. 

12 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

image. There are as many regions distinguished as there are 
clans in the tribe, and it is the place occupied by the clans inside 
the encampment which has determined the orientation of these 
regions. Each region is defined by the totem of the clan to which 
it is assigned. Among the Zuiïi, for example, the pueblo contains 
seven quarters ; each of these is a group of clans which has had 
a unity : in all probability it was originally a single clan which 
was later subdivided. Now their space also contains seven 
quarters, and each of these seven quarters of the world is in 
intimate connection with a quarter of the pueblo, that is to say 
with a group of clans. ^ " Thus," says Gushing, " one division 
is thought to be in relation with the north, another represents 
the west, another the south," etc.^ Each quarter of the pueblo 
has its characteristic colour, which symbolizes it ; each region 
has its colour, which is exactly the same as that of the corre- 
sponding quarter. In the course of history the number of 
fundamental clans has varied ; the number of the fundamental 
regions of space has varied with them. Thusj the social organi za- 
tion has j)e en the model for th e spatial organization and a ^re- 
prÔHÛHion_of_it. ^t~ls ï1ius"ëvên~up to the distraction between 
right "and left which, far from being inherent in the nature of 
man in general, is very probably the product of representations 
which are religious and therefore collective.^ 

Analogous proofs will be found presently in regard to the ideas 
of class, force, personality and efficacy. It is even possible to 
ask if the idea of contradiction does not also depend upon social 
conditions. What makes one tend to believe this is that the 
empire which the idea has exercised over human thought has 
varied with times and societies. To-day the principle of identity 
dominates scientific thought ; but there are vast systems of 
representations which have played a considerable rôle in the 
history of ideas where it has frequently been set aside : these 
are the mythologies, from the grossest up to the most reason- 
able.* There, we are continually coming upon beings which 

^ See Durkheim and Mauss, De quelques formes primitives de classification, in 
Année Sociologique, VI, p. 34. 

* Zuni Creation Myths, in 13/A Rep. of the Bureau of Amer. Ethnol., pp. 367 ff. 

* See Hertz, La prééminence de la main droite. /Aude de polarité religieuse, in 
the Revue Philosophique, Dec, 1909. On this same question of the relations between 
the representation of space and the form of the group, see the chapter in Ratzel, 
Politische Géographie, entitled Der Raum in Geist der Vôlker. 

* We do not mean to say that mythological thought ignores it, but that 
it contradicts it more frequently and openly than scientific thought does. 
Inversely, we shall show that science cannot escape violating it, though it 
holds to it far more scrupulously than religion does. On this subject, as on 
many others, there are only differences of degree between science and religion ; 
but if these differences should not be exaggerated, they must be noted, for they 
are significant. 

Subject of our Study 13 

have the most contradictory attributes simultaneously, who are 
at the same time one and many, material and spiritual, who can 
divide themselves up indefinitely without losing anything of 
their constitution ; in mythology it is an axiom that the part 
is worth the whole. These variations through which the rules 
which seem to govern our present logic have passed prove that, 
far from being engraven through all eternity upon the mental 
constitution of men, they depend, at least in part, upon factors 
that are historical and consequently social. We do not know 
exactly what they are, but we may presume that they exist. ^ 

This hypothesis once admitted, the problem of knowledge is 
posed in new terms. 

Up to the present there have been only two doctrines in thè\ 
field. For some, the catego ries cannot be derived from experience :/ 
they are logically prior to it and condition it. They are repre-j 
sented as so many simple and irreducible data, imminent in the> 
human mind by virtue of its inborn constitution. For this reason 
they are said to be a priori. Others, however, hold that they are! 
constructed and made up of pieces and bits, and that the indi-j 
vidual is the artisan of this construction. ^ 

But each solution raises grave difficulties. 

Is the empirical thesis the one adopted ? Then it is necessary 
to deprive the categories of all their characteristic properties. 
As a matter of fact they are distinguished from all other know- 
ledge by their universality and necessity. They are the most 
general concepts which exist, because they are applicable to all 
that is real, and since they are not attached to any particular 
object they are independent of every particular subject ; they 
constitute the common field where all minds meet. Further, 
they must meet there, for reason, which is nothing more than 
all the fundamental categories taken together, is invested with 
an authority which we could not set aside if we would. When 
we attempt to revolt against it, and to free ourselves from some 

* This hypothesis has already been set forth by the founders of the Vdlker- 
psychologie. It is especially remarked in a short article by Windelbrand entitled 
Die Erkenntnisslehre unter dem Volkerpsychologischen Gesichtspunke, in the 
Zeitsch. f. Viilkerpsychologie, viii, pp. i66 fE. Cf. a note of Steinthal on the same 
subject, ibid., pp. 178 ff. 

* Even in the theory of Spencer, it is by individual experience that the 
categories are made. The only difference which there is in this regard between 
ordinary empiricism and evolutionary empiricism is that according to this 
latter, the results of individual experience are accumulated by heredity. But 
this accumulation adds nothing essential to them ; no element enters into their 
composition which does not have its origin in the experience of the individual. 
According to this theory, also, the necessity with which the categories actually 
impose themselves upon us is the product of an illusion and a superstitious 
prejudice, strongly rooted in the organism, to be sure, but without foundation in 
the nature of things. 

14 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

of these essential ideas, we meet with great resistances. They 
do not merely depend upon us, but they impose themselves 
upon us. Now empirical data present characteristics which are 
diametrically opposed to these. A sensation or an image always 
relies upon a determined object, or upon a collection of objects 
of the same sort, and expresses the momentary condition of a 
particular consciousness ; it is essentially individual and sub- 
jective. We therefore have considerable liberty in dealing with 
the representations of such an origin. It is true that when our 
sensations are actual, they impose themselves upon us in fact. 
But by right we are free to conceive them otherwise than they 
really are, or to represent them to ourselves as occurring in a 
different order from that where they are really produced. In 
regard to them nothing is forced upon us except as considerations 
of another sort intervene. Thus we find that we have here two 
sorts of knowledge, which are like the two opposite poles of the 
intelligence. Under these conditions forcing reason back upon 
experience causes it to disappear, for it is equivalent to reducing 
the universality and necessity which characterize it to pure 
appearance, to an illusion which may be useful practically, but 
which corresponds to nothing in reality ; consequently it is 
denying all objective reality to the logical life, whose regulation 
and organization is the function of the categories. Classical 
empiricism results in irrationalism ; perhaps it would even be 
fitting to designate it by this latter name. 

In spite of the sense ordinarily attached to the name, the 
apriorists have more respect for the facts. Since they do not 
'admit it as a truth established by evidence that the categories 
are made up of the same elements as our sensual representations, 
they are not obliged to impoverish them systematically, to draw 
from them all their real content, and to reduce them to nothing 
more than verbal artifices. On the contrary, they leave them aU 
their specific characteristics. The apriorists are the r ationali sts ; 
they believe that the world has a logical âspect^wHîch the reason 
expresses excellently. But for all that, it is necessary for them 
to give the mind a certain power of transcending experience and 
of adding to that which is given to it directly ; and of this sin- 
gular power they give neither explanation nor justification. 
For it is no explanation to say that it is inherent in the nature of 
the human intellect. It is necessary to show whence we hold 
this surprising prerogative and how it comes that we can see 
certain relations in things which the examination of these things 
cannot reveal to us. Saying that only on this condition is 
experience itself possible changes the problem perhaps, but does 
not answer it. For the real question is to know how it comes 

Subject of our Study 15 

that experience is not sufficient unto itself, but presupposes 
certain conditions which are exterior and prior to it, and how 
it happens that these conditions are reahzed at the moment and 
in the manner that is desirable. To answer these questions it 
has sometimes been assumed that above the reason of individuals 
there is a superior and perfect reason from which the others 
emanate and from which they get this marvellous power of theirs, 
by a sort of mystic participation : this is the divine reason. 
But this hypothesis has at least the one grave disadvantage of 
being deprived of all experimental control ; thus it does not 
satisfy the conditions demanded of a scientific hypothesis. 
More than that, the categories of human thought are never fixed 
in any one definite form ; they are made, unmade and remade 
incessantly ; they change with places and times. On the other 
hand, the divine reason is immutable. How can this immuta- 
bility give rise to this incessant variability ? 

Such are the two conceptions that have been pitted against 
each other for centuries ; and if this debate seems to be eternal, 
it is because the arguments given are really about equivalent. 
If reason is only a form of individual experience, it no longer 
exists. On the other hand, if the powers which it has are recog- 
nized but not accounted for, it seems to be set outside the con- 
fines of nature and science. In the face of these two opposed 
objections the mind remains uncertain. But if the social origin 
of the categories is admitted, a new attitude becomes possible, 
which we believe will enable us to escape both of the opposed 

The fundamental proposition of the apriorist theory is that 
knowledge is made up of two sorts of elements, which cannot 
be reduced into one another, and which are like two distinct 
layers superimposed one upon the other. ^ Our hypothesis keeps 
this principle intact. In fact, that knowledge jwhich is jcalled 
empirical, the only knowledge of which the^theorists-of empiricism 
hayejiiajdeaise4H-^nstructing the reason, is that which is brought 
into ourlninds by the direct acLion_s£_objects. It is composed 
of individual states which are completely explained ^ by the 
psychical nature of the individual. If, on the other hand, the 
categories are, as we believe they are, essentially collective 

^ Perhaps some will be surprised that we do not define the apriorist theory 
by the hypothesis of innateness. But this conception really plays a secondary 
part in the doctrine. It is a simple way of stating the impossibility of reducing 
rational knowledge to empirical data. Saying that the former is innate is only 
a positive way of saying that it is not the product of experience, such as it is 
ordinarily conceived. 

* At least, in so far as there are any representations which are individual 
and hence wholly empirical. But there are in fact probably none where the two 
elemçnts are not found closely united. 

1 6 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

representations, before all else, they should show the mental 
states of the group ; they should depend upon the way in which 
this is founded and organized, upon its morphology, upon its 
religious, moral and economic institutions, etc. So betv/een these 
two sorts of representations there is all the difference which 
exists between the individual and the social, and one can no 
more derive the second from the first than he can deduce society 
from the individual, the whole from the part, the complex from 
the simple. 1 Society is a reality sui generis ; it has its own 
peculiar characteristics, which are not found elsewhere and 
which are not met with again in the same form in all the rest of 
the universe. The representations which express it have a wholly 
different contents from purely individual ones and we may rest 
assured in advance that the first add something to the second. 

Even the manner in which the two are formed results in dif- 
ferentiating them. Collective representations are the result of 
an immense co-operation, which stretches out not only into space 
but into time as well ; to make them, a multitude of minds have 
associated, united and combined their ideas and sentiments ; 
for them, long generations have accumulated their experience 
and their knowledge. A special intellectual activity is therefore 
concentrated in them which is infinitely richer and complexer 
than that of the individual. From that one can understand how 
the reason has been able to go beyond the limits of empirical 
knowledge. It does not owe this to any vague mysterious virtue 
but simply to the fact that according to the well-known formula, 
man is double. There are two beings in him : an individuaT^, 
being which has its foundation in the organism and the circle of 
whose activities is therefore strictly limited, and a social being 
which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and 
moral order that we can know by observation — I mean society. 
This duality of our nature has as its consequence in the practical 
order, the irreducibility of a moral ideal to a utilitarian motive, 
and in the order of thought, the irreducibility of reason to 
individual experience. In so far as he belongs to society, the 

^ This irreducibility must not be taken in any absolute sense. We do not 
wish to say that there is nothing in the empirical representations which shows 
rational ones, nor that there is nothing in the individual which could be taken 
as a sign of social life. If experience were completely separated from all that 
is rational, reason could not operate upon it ; in the same way, if the psychic 
nature of the individual were absolutely opposed to the social life, society would 
be impossible. A complete analysis of the categories should seek these germs of 
rationality even in the individual consciousness. We shall have occasion to 
come back to this point in our conclusion. All that we wish to establish here 
is that between these indistinct germs of reason and the reason properly so called, 
there is a difference comparable to that which separates the properties of the 
mineral elements out of which a living being is composed from the characteristic 
attributes of life after this has once been constituted. 

Subject of our Study 17 

individual transcends himself, both when he thinks and when 
he acts. 

This same social character leaf's to an understanding of the 
origin of the necessity of the categories. ^Itis.^(ilhat an idea 
isjiecGoo ary when it imp oses- itself- upon the mind by some sorF 
of_virtue of its o>wii, with out_ being accompanied by any proof. 
It contains within it something which constrains the intelligence"" 
and which leads to_its_acç eptance w ithout preliminary examina- 
tion. The apriorist postulates this singular quality, Hbut does not 
account for it ; for saying that the categories are necessary 
because they are indispensable to the functioning of the intellect 
is simply repeating that they are necessary. But if they really 
have the origin which we attribute to them, their ascendancy no 
longer has anything surprising in it. They represent the most 
general relations which exist between things ; surpassing all 
our other ideas in extension, they dominate all the details of 
our intellectual life. If men did not agree upon these essential 
ideas at every moment, if they did not have the same conception 
of time, space, cause, number, etc., all contact between their 
minds, _would be impossibles and with that, all "life together.' 
Thus socj_ety_c ould not a bandon the categories to the free choice 
ofthe individual without abandoning itself. If it is to live there 
is hot merelyuLeg d^of a satisfactory moral con formity, but also 
there is a minimum of logical conformity beyond which it cannot 
safely go. For this reason it uses all its authority upon its 
members to forestall such dissidences. Does a mind ostensibly 
free itself from these forms of thought ? It is no longer considered 
a human mind in the full sense of the word, and is treated accord- 
ingly. That is why we feel that we are no longer completely free 
and that something resists, both within and outside ourselves, 
when we attempt to rid ourselves of these fundamental notions, 
even in our own conscience. Outside of us there is public opinion 
which judges us ; but more than that, since society is also repre- 
sented inside of us, it sets itself against these revolutionary 
fancies, even inside of ourselves ; we have the feeling that we 
cannot abandon them if our whole thought is not to cease being 
really human. This seems to be the origin of the exceptional 
authority which Is inherent In the reason and which makes us 
accept its suggestion s with confidence. It is the very authority 
of society, 1 transferring itself to a certain manner of thought 
which is the indispensable condition of all common action. The 
necessity with which the categories are imposed upon us is not 

* It has frequently been remarked that social disturbances result in multi- 
plying mental disturbances. This is one more proof that logical discipline is 
a special aspect of social discipline. The first gives way as the second is weakened. 

1 8 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

the effect of simple habits whose yoke we could easily throw off 
with a little effort ; nor is it a physical or metaphysical necessity, 
since the categories change in different places and times ; it is 
a special sort of moral necessity which is to the intellectual life 
what moral obligation is to the will.^ 

But if the categories originally only translate social .states., 
does it not follow that they can be applied to the rest of nature 
only as metaphors ? If they were made merely to express 
social conditions, it seems as though they could not be extended 
to other realms except in this sense. Thus in so far as they aid 
us in thinking of the physical or biological world, they have only 
the value of artificial symbols, useful practically perhaps, but 
having no connection with reality. Thus we come back, by a 
different road, to nominalism and empiricism. 

But when we interpret a sociological theory of knowledge in 
this way, we forget that even if society is a specific reality it is 
not an empire within an empire ; it is a part of nature, and in- 
deed its highest representation. The social realm is a natural 
realm which differs from the others only by a greater complexity. 
Now it is impossible that nature should differ radically from 
itself in the one case and the other in regard to that which is 
most essential. The fundamental relations that exist between 
things — just that which it is the function of the categories to 
express — cannot be essentially dissimilar in the different realms. 
If, for reasons which we shall discuss later, ^ they are more clearly 
disengaged in the social world, it is nevertheless impossible that 
they should not be found elsewhere, though in less pronounced 
forms. Society makes them more manifest but it does not have 
a monopoly upon them. That is why ideas which have been 
elaborated on the model of social things can aid us in thinking 
of another department of nature. It is at least true that if these 
ideas play the rôle of symbols when they are thus turned aside 
from their original signification, they are well-founded symbols. 
If a sort of artificiality enters into them from the mere fact that 

* There is an analogy between this logical necessity and moral obligation but 
there is not an actual identity. To-day society treats criminals in a diUcrent 
fashion than subjects whose intelligence only is abnormal ; that is a proof that 
the authority attached to logical rules and that inherent in moral rules are not 
of the same nature, in spite of certain similarities. They are two species of the 
same class. It would be interesting to make a study on the nature and origin of 
this difference, which is probably not primitive, for during a long time, the 
public conscience has poorly distinguished between the deranged and the 
delinquent. We confine ourselves to signalizing this question. By this example, 
one may see the number of problems which are raised by the analysis of these 
notions which generally pass as being elementary and simple, but which are 
really of an extreme complexity. 

• This question will be treated again in the conclusion of this work. 

Subject of our Study 19 

they are constructed concepts, it is an artificiality which follows 
nature very closely and which is constantly approaching it still 
more closely. ^ From the fact that the ideas of time, space, class, 
cause or personality are constructed out of social elements, it is 
not necessary to conclude that they are devoid of all objective 
value. On the contrary, their social origin rather leads to the 
belief that they are not without foundation in the nature of 
things. 2 

Thus renovated, the theory of knowle dge seems destined to 
unite the opposing advantages of the two rival theories, without 
incurring their inconveniences. It keeps allt he essential prin - 
ciples of the aprioristsj_but at the 3c[TTiêTîme~it is inspired by 
t hat^p ositiy£lspirit--whiçlLJhê^mprncist^ to satis fy, 

it leavesthe reason its specific power/but it accounts for it and 
does so without leaving the world of observable phenomena. 
It affirms the duality of our intellectual life, but it explains it, 
and with natural causes. The categories are no longer con- 
sidered as primary and unanalysable facts, yet they keep a 
complexity which falsifies any analysis as ready as that with 
which the empiricists content themselves. They no longer appear 
as very simple notions which the first comer can very easily 
arrange from his own personal observations and which the 
popular imagination has unluckily complicated, but rather they 
appear as priceless instruments of thought which the human 
groups have laboriously forged through the centuries and where 
they have accumulated the best of their intellectual capital.^ 
A complete section of the history of humanity is resumed therein. 
This is equivalent to saying that to succeed in understanding \^ 
them and judging them, it is necessary to resort to other means \ 

1 The rationalism which is imminent in the sociological theory of knowledge \ 

is thus midway between the classical empiricism and apriorism. For the first, I 

the categories are purely artificial constructions ; for the second, on the contrary, J 

they are given by nature ; for us, they are in a sense a work of art, but of an art^„^^ 
which imitates nature with a perfection capable of increasing unlimitedly. 

"' l^or example, that which is at the foundation of the category of time is the 

ihth of social life-; but if there is a rhythm in collective life, one may rest 
assured that there is another in the life of the individual, and more generally, 
in that of the universe. The first is merely more marked and apparent than the 
others. In the same way, we shall see that the notion of class is founded on that 
of the human group. But if men form natural groups, it can be assumed that 
among things there exists groups which are at once analogous and different. 
Classes and species are natural groups of things. 

If it seems to many minds that a social origin cannot be attributed to the 
categories without depriving them of all speculative value, it is because society 
is still too frequently regarded as something that is not natural ; hence it is 
concluded that the representations which express it express nothing in nature. 
But the conclusion is not worth more than the premise. 

* This is how it is legitimate to compare the categories to tools ; for on its 
side, a tool is material accumulated capital. There is a close relationsliip between 
the three ideas of tool, category and institution. 

20 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

than those which have been in use up to the present. To know 
what these conceptions which we have not made ourselves are 
really made of, it does not suffice to interrogate our own con- 
sciousnesses ; we must look outside of ourselves, it is hisLory 
thaL_WÊ,-ï»ust-observe, there is a whole science wfiîcîTTnust be 
formed, a complex science which can advance but slowly and by 
collective labour, and to which the present work brings some 
fragmentary contributions in the nature of an attempt. With- 
out making these questions the direct object of our study, we shall 
profit by all the occasions which present themselves to us of 
catching at their very birth some at least of these ideas which, 
while being of religious origin, still remain at the foundation of 
the human intelligence. 




IF we are going to look for the most primitive and simple 
religion which we can observe, it is necessary to begin by 
defining what is meant by a religion ; for without this, we would 
run the risk of giving the name to a system of ideas and practices 
which has nothing at all religious about it, or else of leaving 
to one side many religious facts, without perceiving their true 
nature. That this is not an imaginary danger, and that nothing 
is thus sacrificed to a vain formalism of method, is well shown 
by the fact that owing to his not having taken this precaution, 
a certain scholar to whom the science of comparative religions 
owes a great deal, Professor Frazer, has not been able to recog- 
nize the profoundly religious character of the beliefs and rites 
which will be studied below, where, according to our view, the 
initial germ of the religious life of humanity is to be found. 
So this is a prejudicial question, which must be treated before 
all others. It is not that we dream of arriving at once at the 
profound characteristics which really explain religion : these 
can be determined only at the end of our study. But that which 
is necessary and possible, is to indicate a certain number of 
external and easily recognizable signs, which will enable us to 
recognize religious phenomena wherever they are met with, and 
which will deter us from confounding them with others. We shall 
proceed to this preliminary operation at once. 

But to attain the desired results, it is necessary to begin by 
freeing the mind of every preconceived idea. Men have been 
obliged to make for themselves a notion of what religion is, 
long before the science of religions started its methodical com- 
parisons. The necessities of existence force all of us, believers 
and non-believers, to represent in some way these things in 

1 We have already attempted to define religious phenomena in a paper 
which was published in the Année Sociologique (Vol. Il, pp. i fï.). The defini- 
tion then given differs, as will be seen, from the one we give to-day. At the end 
of this chapter (p. 47, n. i), we shall explain the reasons which have led us to 
these modifications, but which imply no essential change in the conception of 
the facts. 


24 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

the midst of which we live, upon which we must pass judgment 
constantly, and which we must take into account in all our 
conduct. However, since these preconceived ideas are formed 
without any method, according to the circumstances and chances 
of life, they have no right to any credit whatsoever, and must 
be rigorously set aside in the examination which is to follow. 
It is not from our prejudices, passions or habits that we should 
demand the elements of the definition which we must have ; 
it is from the reality itself which we are going to define. 

Let us set ourselves before this reality. Leaving aside all con- 
ceptions of religion in general, let us consider the various re- 
ligions in their concrete reality, and attempt to disengage that 
which they have in common ; for religion cannot be defined 
except by the characteristics which are found wherever religion 
itself is found. In this comparison, then, we shall make use of 
all the religious systems which we can know, those of the present 
and those of the past, the most primitive and simple as well as 
the most recent and refined ; for we have neither the right nor 
the logical means of excluding some and retaining others. For 
those who regard re^ligion as only a natural manifestation of 
human activity, all religions, without any exception whatsoever, 
are instructive ; for all, after their manner, express man, and 
thus can aid us in better understanding this aspect of our nature. 
Also, we have seen how far it is from being the best way of study- 
ing religion to consider by preference the forms which it presents 
among the most civilized peoples.^ 

But to aid the mind in freeing itself from these usual con- 
ceptions which, owing to their prestige, might prevent it from 
seeing things as they really are, it is fitting to examine some of 
the most current of the definitions in which these prejudices 
are commonly expressed, before taking up the question on our 
own account. 


' One idea which generally passes as characteristic of all that 
is religious, is that of the supernatu ral. By this is understood 
all sorfs of things which surpass the limits of our knowledge ; 
the supernatural is the world of the mysterious, of the unknow- 
able, of the un-uuderstandable. Thus religion would be a sort 
of speculation upon all that which evades science or distinct 
thought in general, " Religions diametrically opposed in their 
overt dogmas," said Spencer, " are perfectly at one in the tacit 

1 See above, p. 3. We shall say nothing more upon the necessity of these 
preliminary definitions nor upon the method to be followed to attain them. 
That is exposed in our Règles de la Méthode sociologique, pp. 43 ff. Cf. Le Suicide, 
pp. I fi. (Paris, F. Alcan). 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 25 

conviction that the existence of the world, with all it contains c 
and all which surrounds it, is a mystery calling for an explana- I 
tion " ; he thus makes them consist essentially in " the belief ' 
in the omnipresence of something which is inscrutable." ^ In \ 
the same manner, Max Muller sees in religion " a struggle to 
conceive the inconceivable, to utter the unutterable, a longing 
after the Infinite." 2 _j 

It is certain that the sentiment of mystery has not been without 
a considerable importance in certain religions, notably in Chris- 
tianity, It must also be said that the importance of this senti- 
ment has varied remarkably at different moments in the history 
of Christianity. There are periods when this notion passes to an 
inferior place, and is even effaced. For example, for the Christians 
of the seventeenth century, dogma had nothing disturbing for 
the reason ; faith reconciled itself easily with science and 
philosophy, and the thinkers, such as Pascal, who really felt that 
there is something profoundly obscure in things, were so little in 
harmony with their age that they remained misunderstood by 
their contemporaries.^ It would appear somewhat hasty, there- 
fore, to make an idea subject to parallel eclipses, the essential 
element of even the Christian religion. 

In^all events, it is certain that this idea does not appear until ^ 
late in the history of religions ; it is completely foreign, not only . 
to those peoples who are called primitive, but also to all others 
who have not attained a considerable degree of intellectual 
culture. When we see them attribute extraordinary virtues to 
insignificant objects, and people the universe with singular 
principles, made up of the most diverse elements and endowed 
with a sort of ubiquity which is hardly representable, we are 
undoubtedly prone to find an air of mystery in these conceptions. 
It seems to us that these men would have been willing to resign 
themselves to these ideas ,_so_ disturbing for our modern reason, 
only because of their inability to find others which were more 
rational. But, as a matter of fact, these explanations which 
surprise us so much, appear to the primitive man as the simplest -^i. 
in the world. He does not regard them as a sort of ultima ratio 
to which the intellect resigns itself only in despair of others, but 
rather as the most obvious manner of representing and under- 
standing what he sees about him. For him there is nothing strange 
in the fact that by a mere word or gesture one is able to command 

^ First Principles, p. 37. 

• Introduction to the Science of Religions, p. 18. Cf. Origin and Development 
of Religion, p. 23. 

' This same frame of mind is also found in the scholastic period, as is witnessed 
by the formula with which philosophy was defined at this time : Fides qucerens 


20 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

the elements, retard or precipitate the motion of the stars, bring 
rain or cause it to cease, etc. The rites which he employs to assure 
the fertility of the soil or the fecundity of the animal species on 
which he is nourished do not appear more irrational to his eyes 
than the technical processes of which our agriculturists make 
use, for the same object, do to ours. The powers which he puts 
into play by these diverse means do not seem to him to have 
anything especially mysterious about them. Undoubtedly these 
forces are different from those which the modern scientist thinks 
of, and whose use he teaches us ; they have a different way of 
acting, and do not allow themselves to be directed in the same 
manner ; but for those who believe in them, they are no more 
unintelligible than are gravitation and electricity for the 

! physicist of to-day. Moreover, we shall see, in the course of this 
work, that the idea of physical forces is very probably derived 
from that of religious forces ; then there cannot exist between 
the two the abyss which separates the rational from the irrational. 
Even the fact that religious forces are frequently conceived under 
the form of spiritual beings or conscious wills, is no proof of their 
irrationality. The reason has no repugnance a priori to ad- 
mitting that the so-called inanimate bodies should be directed by 
intelligences, just as the human body is, though contemporary 
science accommodates itself with difficulty to this hypothesis. 
When Leibniz proposed to conceive the external world as an 
immense society of minds, between which there were, and could 
be, only spiritual relations, he thought he was working as a 
rationalist, and saw nothing in this universal animism which 

[_could be offensive to the intellect. 

[" Moreover, the idea of the supernatural, as we understand it, 
dates only from to-day ; in fact, it presupposes the contrary idea, 
of which it is the negation ; but this idea is not at all primitive. 
In order to say that certain things are supernatural, it is necessary 
to have the sentiment that a natural order of things exists, that is 
to say, that the phenomena of the universe are bound together 
by necessary relations, called laws. When this principle has once 
been admitted, all that is contrary to these laws must necessarily 
appear to be outside of nature, and consequently, of reason ; for 
what is natural in this sense of the word, is also rational, these 
necessary relations only expressing the manner in which things 
are logically related. But this idea of universal determinism is 
of recent origin ; even the greatest thinkers of classical antiquity 
never succeeded in becoming fully conscious of it. It is a conquest 
of the positive sciences ; it is the postulate upon which they 
repose and which they have proved by their progress. Now as 
long as this was lacking or insufficiently established, the most 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 27 

marvellous events contained nothing which did not appear 
perfectly conceivable. So long as men did not know the im- 
mutability and the inflexibility of the order of things, and so 
long as they saw there the work of contingent wills, they found 
it natural that either these wills or others could modify them 
arbitrarily. That is why the miraculous interventions which 
the ancients attributed to their gods were not to their eyes 
miracles in the modern acceptation of the term. For them, 
they were beautiful, rare or terrible spectacles, or causes of 
surprise and marvel {davfxaTa, mirahilia, miracula) ; but they 
never saw in them glimpses of a mysterious world into which the 
reason cannot penetrate. ^ 

We can understand this mentality the better since it has not 
yet completely disappeared from our midst. If the principle of 
determinism is soHdly established to-day in the physical and 
natural sciences, it is only a century ago that it was first intro- 
duced into the social sciences, and its authority there is still 
contested. There are only a small number of minds which are 
strongly penetrated with~this-4dear^at societies are subject to 
natural laws and form a kingdom of nature. It follows that 
veritable miracles are believed to be possible there. It is ad- 
mitted, for example, that a legislator can create an institution 
out of nothing by a mere injunction of its will, or transform one 
social system into another, just as the believers in so many 
religions have held that the divine will created the world out of 
nothing, or can arbitrarily transmute one thing into another. As 
far as social facts are concerned, we still have the mentaUty of 
primitives. However, if so many of our contemporaries still 
retain this antiquated conception for sociological affairs, it is not 
because the life of societies appears obscure and mysterious to 
them ; on the contrary, if they are so easily contented with these 
explanations, and if they are so obstinate in their illusions which 
experience constantly belies, it is because social events seem to 
them the clearest thing in the world ; it is because they have not 
yet reaUzed their real obscurity ; it is because they have not yet 
recognized the necessity of resorting to the laborious methods of 
the natural sciences to gradually scatter the darkness. The same 
state of mind is found at the root of many religious beliefs which 
surprise us by their pseudo-simplicity. It is science and not~^ 
religion which has taught men that things are complex and 
difficult to understand. ^ 

But the human mind, says Jevons,^ has no need of a properly 
scientific culture to notice that determined sequences, or a constant 
order of succession, exist between facts, or to observe, on the 

* Introduction to the History of Religions, pp. 15 fi. 


28 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

other hand, that this order is frequently upset. It sometimes 
happens that the sun is suddenly eclipsed, that rain fails at the 

^time when it is expected, that the moon is slow to reappear after 
its periodical disappearance, etc. Since these events are outside 
the ordinary course of affairs, they are attributed to extraordinary 
exceptional causes, that is to say, in fine, to extra-natural causes. 
It is under this form that the idea of the supernatural is born at 
the very outset of history, and from this moment, according to 
this author, religious thought finds itself provided with its proper 


^ But in the first place, the supernatural cannot be reduced to 
the unforeseen. The new is a part of nature just as well as its 
contrary. If we state that in general, phenomena succeed one 
another in a determined order, we observe equally well that this 
order is only approximative, that it is not always precisely the 
same, and that it has all kinds of exceptions. If we have ever 
so little experience, we are accustomed to seeing our expectations 
fail, and these deceptions return too often to appear extraordinary 
to us. A certain contingency is taught by experience just as well 
as a certain uniformity ; then we have no reason for assigning 
the one to causes and forces entirely different from those upon 
which the other depends. In order to arrive at the idea of the 
supernatural, it is not enough, therefore, to be witnesses to un- 
expected events ; it is also necessary that these be^onceived as 
impossible, that is to say, irreconcilable with an order which, 
rightly or wrongly, appears to us to be implied in the nature of 
things. Now this idea of a necessary order has been constructed 
little by little by the positive sciences, and consequently the 

^contrary notion could not have existed before them, 
r Also, in whatever manner men have represented the novelties 
and contingencies revealed by experience, there is nothing in 
these representations which could serve to characterize religion. 
For religious conceptions have as their object, before everything 
else, to express and explain, not that which is exceptional and 
abnormal in things, but, on the contrary, that which is constant 
and regular. Very frequently, the gods serve less to account for 
the monstrosities, fantasies and anomalies than for thejregular 
march of the universe, for the movement of the stars, the rhythm 
of the seasons, the annual growth of vegetation, the perpetuation 
of species, etc. It is far from being true, then, that the notion of 
the religions coincides with that of the extraordinary or the 
[^unforeseen. Jevons replies that this conception of religious 
forces is not primitive. Men commenced by imagining them to 
account for disorders and accidents, and it was only afterwards 
that they began to utilize them in explaining the uniformities of 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 29 

nature. 1 But it is not clear what could have led men to attribute 
such manifestly contradictory functions to them. More than 
that, the hypothesis according to which sacred beings were at 
first restricted to the negative function of disturbers is quite 
arbitrary. In fact, we shall see that, even with the most simple"" 
religions we know, their essential task is t o ma mt ain, in a positive 
manner, the normal course of life.^ -^ -' 

So the idea of mystery is not of primitive origin. It was not 
given to man ; it is man who has forged it, with his own hands, 
along with the contrary idea. This is why it has a place only in 
a very small number of advanced religions. It is impossible to 
make it the characteristic mark of religious phenomena without 
excluding from the definition the majority of the facts to be 


Another idea by which the attempt to define religion is often 
made, is that of divinity. " Religion," says M. Réville, ^ " is the 
-determination of human life by the sentiment of a bond uniting 
the human mind to that mysterious mind whose domination of 
the world and itself it recognizes, and to whom it delights in 
feeling itself united." It is certain that if the word divinity is 
taken in a precise and narrow sense, this definition leaves aside 
a multitude of obviously religious facts. The souls of the dead 
and the spirits of all ranks and classes with which the religious 
imagination of so many different peoples has populated nature, 
are always the object of rites and sometimes even of a regular 
cult ; yet they are not gods in the proper sense of the term. But 
in order that the definition may embrace them, it is enough to 
substitute for the term " gods " the more comprehensive one of 
" spiritual beings." This is what Tylor does. " The first 
requisite in a systematic study of the religions of the lower 
races," he says, '* is to lay down a rudimentary definition of 
religion. By requiring in this definition the belief in a supreme 
deity . . ., no doubt many tribes may be excluded from the category 
of religious. But such narrow definition has the fault of identify- 
ing religion rather with particular developments. ... It seems 
best . . . simply to claim as a minimum definition of Religion, 
the beljeljn Spiritua j_Beings."^ By spiritual beings must be 
understood conscious~su5Jects gifted with powers superior to 
those possessed by common men ; this qualification is found 

* Introduction to the History of Religions, p. 23. 
" See below, Bk. Ill, ch. ii. 

^ Prolegomena to the History of Religions, p. 25 (tr. by Squire). 

* Primitive Culture, I, p. 424. (Fourth edition, 1903.) 

30 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

in the souls of the dead, geniuses or demons as well as in divinities 
properly so-called. It is important, therefore, to give our 
attention at once to the particular conception of religion which 
is implied in this definition. The relations which we can have 
with beings of this sort are determined by the nature attributed 
to them. They are conscious beings ; then^we can act upon 
them only in the same way that we act upon consciousnesses in 
general, that is to say, by psychological processes, attempting 
to convince them or move them, either with thé aid of words 
(invocations, prayers), or by offerings and, sacrifices. And 
since the object of religion is to regulate our relations with these 
special beings, there can be no religion except where there are 
prayers, sacrifices, propitiatory rites, etc. Thus we have a very 
simple critérium which permits us to distinguish that which is 
religious from that which is not. It is to this critérium that 
Frazer,^ and with him numerous ethnographers,^ systematically 
makes reference. 

But howsoever evident this definition may appear, thanks to 
the mental habits which we owe to our religious education, 
there are many facts to which it is not applicable, but which 
appertain to the field of religion nevertheless. 

In the first place, there are great religions from which the idea 
of^ds and spirits is absent, or at least, where it plays only a 
secondary and minor rôle. This is the case with Buddhism. 
Buddhism, says Burnouf, " sets itself in opposition to Brah- 
manism as a moral system without god and an atheism without 
Nature . " ^ " As it recognizes not a god upon whom man depends , ' ' 
says Barth, " its doctrine is absolutely atheistic,"^ while Oldfen- 
berg, in his turn, calls it " a faith without a gor* "^ In fact, 
all that is essential to Buddhism is found in the four propositions 
which the faithful call the four noble truths.* The first states 
the existence of suffering as the accompaniment to the perpetual 
change of things ; the second shows desire to be the cause of 
suffering ; the third makes the suppression of desire the only 
means of suppressing sorrow ; the fourth enumerates the three 
stages through which one must pass to attain this suppression : 
they are uprightness, meditation, and finally wisdom, the full 

^ Beginning with the first edition of the Golden Bough, I, pp. 30-32. 

" Notably Spencer and Gillen and even Preuss, who gives the name magic 
to all non-individualized religious forces. 

^ Burnouf, Introduction à l'histoire du bouddhisme indien, sec. edit., p. 464. 
The last word of the text shows that Buddhism does not even admit the existence 
of an eternal Nature. 

* Barth, The Religions of India, p. no (tr. by Wood). 

' Oldenberg, Buddha, p. 53 (tr. by Hoey). 

" Oldenberg, ibid., pp. 313 ff. Cf. Kern, Histoire du bouddhisme dans l'Inde, 
I. pp. 389 ff. 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 31 

possession of the doctrine. These three stages once traversed, 
one arrives at the end of the road, at the deUverance, at salvation 
by the Nirvana. 

Now in none of these principles is there question of a divinity. 
The Buddhist is not interested in knowing whence came the 
world in which he lives and suffers ; he takes it as a given fact,^ 
and his whole concern is to escape it. On the other hand, in this 
work of salvation, he can count only upon himself ; " he has 
no god to thank, as he had previously no god to invoke during 
his struggle. "2 Instead of praying, in the ordinary sense of the 
term, instead of turning towards a superior being and imploring 
his assistance, he relies upon himself and meditates. This is not 
sajnng " that he absolutely denies the existence of the beings 
called Indra, Agni and Varuna ;^ but he believes that he owes 
them nothing and that he has nothing to do with them," for 
their power can only extend over the goods of this world, which 
are without value for him. Then he is an atheist, in the sense 
that he does not concern himself with the question whether gods 
exist or not. Besides, even if they should exist, and with what- 
ever powers they might be armed, the saint or the emancipated 
man regards himself superior to them ; for that which causes 
the dignity of beings is not the extent of the action they exercise 
over things, but merely the degree of their advancement upon 
the road of salvation.'' 

It is true that Buddha, at least in some divisions of the Budd- 
hist Church, has sometimes been considered as a sort of god. 
He has his temples ; he is the object of a cult, which, by the 
way, is a very simple one, for it is reduced essentially to the 
offering of flowers and the adoration of consecrated relics or 
images. It is scarcely more than a comemorative cult. But 
more than that, this divinization of Buddha, granting that the 
term is exact, is peculiar to the form known as Northern 
Buddhism. " The Buddhist of the South," says Kern, " and 
the less advanced of the Northern Buddhists can be said, accord- 
ing to data known to-day, to speak of their founder as if he 
were a man."^ Of course, they attribute extraordinary powers 
to Buddha, which are superior to those possessed by ordinary 
mortals ; but it was a very ancient belief in India, and one that 

* Oldenberg, p. 250; Barth, p. no. 

* Oldenberg, p. 314. 

' Barth, p. 109. In the same way, Bumouf says, " I have the profound 
conviction that if Çâkya had not found about him a Pantheon already peopled 
with the gods just named, he would have felt no need of inventing them " 
(Introd. à I' hist, du bouddhisme indien, p. 119). 

* Bumouf, op. cit., p. 117. 
' Kern, op. cit., I, p. 289. 

32 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

is also very general in a host of different religions, that a great 
saint is endowed with exceptional virtues ;i yet a. saint is not 
a god, any more than a priest or magician is, in spite of the 
superhuman faculties frequently attributed to them. On the 
other hand, according to the most authorized scholars, all this 
theism and the complicated mythology which generally accom- 
panies it, are only derived and deviated forms of Buddhism^ 
At first, Buddha was only regarded as " the wisest of men."^ 
Burnouf says " the conception of a Buddha who is something 
more than a man arrived at the highest stage of holiness, is out- 
side the circle of ideas which form the foundation of the simple 
Sutras " ;3 and the same author adds elsewhere that " his 
humanity is a fact so incontestably recognized by all that the 
myth-makers, to whom miracles cost so little, have never even 
had the idea of making a god out of him since his death."'* 
So we may well ask if he has ever really divested himself com- 
pletely of all human character, and if we have a right to make 
him into a god completely ;^ in any case, it would have to be 
a god of a very particular character and one whose rôle in no 
way resembles that of other divine personalities. For a god is 
before all else a living being, with whom man should reckon, 
and upon whom he may count ; but Buddha is dead, he has 
entered into the Nirvana, and he can no longer influence the 
march of human events.* 

Finally, whatever one may think of the divinity of Buddha, 
it remains a fact that this is a conception wholly outside the 
essential part of Buddhism. Buddhism consists primarily in 
the idea of salvation, and salvation supposes only that one know 
the good doctrine and practise it. To be sure, this could never 
have been known if Buddha had not come to reveal it ; but 
when this revelation had once been made, the work of Buddha 
was accomplished. From that moment he ceased to be a factor 
necessary to the religious life. The practice of the four holy 
truths would be possible, even if the memory of him who revealed 

^ " The belief, universally admitted in India, that great holiness is necessarily 
accompanied by supernatural faculties, is the only support which he (Çâkya) 
should find in spirits " (Burnouf, p. 119). 

* Burnouf, p. 120. 

' Ibid., p. 107. * Ibid., p. 302. 

^ This is what Kern expresses in the following terms : "In certain regards, 
he is a man ; in certain others, he is not a man ; in others, he is neither the one 
nor the other " [op. cit., I, p. 290). 

* " The conception " " was foreign to Buddhism " " that the divine Head of 
the Community is not absent from his people, but that he dwells powerfully in 
their midst as their lord and king, so that all cultus is nothing else but the 
expression of this continuing living fellowship. Buddha has entered into 
Nirvana ; if his believers desired to invoke him, he could not hear them " 
(Oldenberg, p. 309). 

Définition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 33 

them were completely obliterated.^ It is quite another matter 
with Christianity, which is inconceivable without the ever- 
present idea of Christ and his ever-practised cult ; for it is by 
the ever-living Christ, sacrificed each day, that the community 
of believers continues to communicate with the supreme source 
of the spiritual life.^ 

All that precedes can be applied equally well to another great 
religion of India, Jainism. The two doctrines have nearly the 
same conception of the world and of life. " Like the Buddhists," 
says Barth, " the Jainas are atheists. They admit of no creator ; 
the world is eternal ; they explicitly deny the possibility of 
a perfect being from the beginning. The Jina became perfect ; 
he was not always so." 

Just as the Buddhists in the north, the Jainists, or at least 
certain of them, have come back to a sort of deism ; in the 
inscriptions of Dekhan there is mention of a Jinapati, a sort of 
supreme Jina, who is called the primary creator ; but such 
language, says the same author, is "in contradiction to the 
most explicit declarations extracted from their most authorized 

•• Moreover, if this indifference for the divine is developed to 
such a point in Buddhism and Jainism, it is because its germ 
existed already in the Brahmanism from which the two were 
derived. In certain of its forms at least, Brahmic speculation 
ended in " a frankly materialistic and atheistic interpretation 
of the universe."^ In time, the numerous divinities which the 
people of India had originally learned to adore, came to merge 
themselves into a sort of principal deity, impersonal and abstract, 
the essence of all that exists. This supreme reality, which no 
longer has anything of a divine personality about it, is contained 
within man himself, or rather, man is but one with it, for nothing 
exists apart from it. To find it, and unite himself to it, one does 
not have to search some external support outside himself ; it is 
enough to concentrate upon himself and meditate. "If in 
Buddhism," says Oldenberg, " the proud attempt be made to 
conceive a deliverance in which man himself delivers himself, 
to create a faith without a god, it is Brahmanical speculation 
which has prepared the way for this thought. It thrusts back 
the idea of a god step by step ; the forms of the old gods have 

^ " Buddhist doctrine might be in all its essentials what it actually is, even 
if the idea of Buddha remained completely foreign to it " (Oldenberg, p. 322). — 
And whatever is said of the historic Buddha can be applied equally well to the 
mythological Buddhas. 

* For the same idea, see Max Miiller, Natural Religion, pp. 103 fî. and 190. 
' Op. cit., p. 146. 

* Barth, in Encyclopédie des sciences religieuses, VI, p. 548. 

34 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

faded away, and besides the Brahma, which is enthroned in its 
everlasting quietude, highly exalted above the destinies of the 
human world, there is left remaining, as the sole really active 
person in the great work of deliverance, man himself. "^ Here, 
then, we find a considerable portion of religious evolution which 
has consisted in the progressive recoil of the idea of a spiritual 
being from that of a deity. Here are great religions where 
invocations, propitiations, sacrifices and prayers properly so- 
called are far, from holding a preponderating place, and which 
consequently do not present that distinctive sign by which some 
claim to recognize those manifestations which are properly 
called religious. 

But even within deistic religions there are many rites which 
are completely independent of all idea of gods or spiritual beings. 
In the first place, there are a multitude of interdictions. For 
example, the Bible orders that a woman live isolated during a 
determined period each month ;^ a similar isolation is obligatory 
during the lying-in at child-birth ;^ it is forbidden to hitch an 
ass and a horse together, or to wear a garment in which the 
hemp is mixed with flax ; * but it is impossible to see the part 
which belief in Jahveh can have played in these interdictions, 
for he is wholly absent from all the relations thus forbidden, 
and could not be interested in them. As much can be said for 
the majority of the dietetic regulations. These prohibitions are 
not peculiar to the Hebrews, but they are found under diverse 
forms, but with substantially the same character, in innumerable 

It is true that these rites are purely negative, but they do not 
cease being religious for that. Also there are others which 
demand active and positive services of the faithful, but which 
are nevertheless of the same nature. They work by themselves, 
and their efficacy depends upon no divine power ; they mechani- 
cally produce the effects which are the reason for their existence. 
They do not consist either in prayers or offerings addressed to 
a being upon whose goodwill the expected result depends ; 
this result is obtained by the automatic operation of the ritual. 
Such is notably the case with the sacrifice of the Vedic religion. 
" The sacrifice exercises a direct influence upon the celestial 
phenomena," says Bergaigne ;* it is all-powerful of itself, and 
without any divine influence. It is this, for example, which 
broke open the doors of the cavern where the dawn was im- 
prisoned and which made the light of day burst forth. ^ In the 

^ Oldenberg, op. cit., p. 53. * i Sam. xxi., 6. 

' Levit. xii. * Deut. xxii., 10 and 11. 

* La religion védique, I, p. 12a. ' Ibid., p. 133. 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 35 

same way there are special hymns which, by their direct action, 
made the waters of heaven fall upon the earth, and even in 
spite of the gods^ The practice of certain austerities has the 
same power. More than that, " the sacrifice is so fully the origin 
of things par excellence, that they have attributed to it not only 
the origin of man, but even that of the gods. . . . Such a con- 
ception may well appear strange. It is explained, however, as 
being one of the ultimate consequences of the idea of the omni- 
potence of sacrifice. "2 Thus, in the entire first part of his work, 
M. Bergaigne speaks only of sacrifices, where divinities play no 
rôle whatsoever. 

Nor is this fact peculiar to the Vedic religion, but is, on the 
contrary, quite general. In every cult there are practices which 
act by themselves, by a virtue which is their own, without the 
intervention of any god between the individual who practises 
the rite and the end sought after. When, in the so-called Feast 
of the Tabernacles, the Jew set the air in motion by shaking 
willow branches in a certain rhythm, it was to cause the wind 
to rise and the rain to fall ; and it was believed that the desired 
phenomenon would result automatically from the rite, provided 
it were coiTectly performed. ^ This is the explanation of the 
fundamental importance laid by nearly all cults upon the material 
portion of the ceremonies. This religious formalism — very 
probably the first form of legal formalism — comes from the fact 
that since the formula to be pronounced and the movements 
to be made contain within themselves the source of their efficacy, 
they would lose it if they did not conform absolutely to the 
type consecrated by success. 

Thus there are rites without gods, and even rites from which 
gods are derived. All religious powers do not emanate from 
divine personalities, and there are relations of cult which have 
other objects than uniting man to a deity. Religion is more 
than the idea of gods or spirits, and consequently cannot be 
defined exclusively in relation to these latter. 

^ " No text," says Bergaigne, " bears better witness to the consciousness of 
a magic action by man upon the waters of heaven than verse x, 32, 7, where 
this belief is expressed in general terms, applicable to an actual man, as well as 
to his real or mythological ancestors : ' The ignorant man has questioned the 
wise ; instructed by the wise, he acts, and here is the profit of his instruction : 
he obtains the flowing of streams ' " (p. 137)- 

* Ibid., p. 139. 

* Examples will also be found in Hubert, art. Magia in the Dictionnaire des 
Antiquités, VI, p. 1509. 

36 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 


These definitions set aside, let us set ourselves before the 

First of all, let us remark that in all these formulae it is the 
nature of religion as a whole that they seek to express.^ They 
proceed as if it were a sort of indivisible entity, while, as a matter 
of fact, it is made up of parts ; it is a more or less complex 
system of myths, dogmas, rites and ceremonies. Now a whole 
cannot be defined except in relation to its parts. It will be 
more methodical, then, to try to characterize the various 
elementary phenomena of which all religions are made up, 
before we attack the system produced by their union. This 
method is imposed still more forcibly by the fact that there are 
religious phenomena which belong to no determined religion. 
Such are those phenomena which constitute the matter of folk- 
lore. In general, they are the debris of passed religions, in- 
organized survivals ; but there are some which have been 
formed spontaneously under the influence of local causes. In 
our European countries Christianity has forced itself to absorb 
and assimilate them ; it has given them a Christian colouring. 
Nevertheless, there are many which have persisted up until a 
recent date, or which still exist with a relative autonomy : 
celebrations of May Day, the summer solstice or the carnival, 
beliefs relative to genii, local demons, etc., are cases in point. 
If the religious character of these facts is now diminishing, 
their religious importance is nevertheless so great that they have 
enabled Mannhardt and his school to revive the science of 
religions. A definition which did not take account of them 
would not cover all that is religious. 

Religious phenomena are naturally arranged in two funda- 
mental categories : beliefs and rites. The first are states of 
opinion, and consist in represeiitations ; the second are deter- 
mined modes of action. Between these two classes of facts there 
is all the difference which separates thought from action. 

The rites can be defined and distinguished from other human 
practices, moral practices, for example, only by the special 
nature of their object. A moral rule prescribes certain manners 
of acting to us, just as a rite does, but which are addressed to 
a different class of objects. So it is the object of the rite which 
must be characterized, if we are to characterize the rite itself. 
Now it is in the beliefs that the special nature of this object is 
expressed. It is possible to define the rite only after we have 
defined the belief. 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 37 

All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present ' 
one common characteristic : they presuppose a classification of 
all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes 
or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms 
which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred 
{profane, sacré). This division of the world into two domains, 
the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, 
is the distinctive trait of religious thought ; the beliefs, myths, 
dogmas and legends are either representations or systems of 
representations which express the nature of sacred things, the 
virtues and powers which are attributed to them, or their 
relations with each other and with profane things. But by 
sacred things one must not understand simply those personal 
beings which are called gods or spirits ; a rock, a tree, a spring, 
a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be 
sacred. A rite can have this character ; in fact, the rite does 
not exist which does not have it to a certain degree. There are 
words, expressions and formulae which can be pronounced only 
by the mouths of consecrated persons ; there are gestures and 
movements which everybody cannot perform. If the Vedic 
sacrifice has had such an efficacy that, according to mythology, 
it was the creator of the gods, and not merely a means of winning 
their favour, it is because it possessed a virtue comparable to 
that of the most sacred beings. The circle of sacred objects 
cannot be determined, then, once for all. Its extent varies in- 
finitely, according to the different religions. That is how Budd- 
hism is a religion : in default of gods, it admits the existence of 
sacred things, namely, the four noble truths and the practices 
derived from them.^ 

Up to the present we have confined ourselves to enumerating 
a certain number of sacred things as examples : we must now 
show by what general characteristics they are to be distinguished 
from profane things. 

One might be tempted, first of all, to define them by the place 
they are generally assigned in the hierarchy of things. They 
are naturally considered superior in dignity and power to profane 
things, and particularly to man, when he is only a man and has 
nothing sacred about him. One thinks of himself as occupying 
an inferior and dependent position in relation to them ; and surely 
this conception is not \vithout some truth. Only there is nothing 
in it which is really characteristic of the sacred. It is not enough 
that one thing be subordinated to another for the second to be 
sacred in regard to the first. Slaves are inferior to their masters, 

^ Not to mention the sage and the saint who practise these truths and who 
for that reason are sacred. 

38 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

subjects to their king, soldiers to their leaders, the miser to his 
gold, the man ambitious for power to the hands which keep it 
from him ; but if it is sometimes said of a man that he makes a 
religion of those beings or things whose eminent value and 
superiority to himself he thus recognizes, it is clear that in any 
case the word is taken in a metaphorical sense, and that there 
is nothing in these relations which is really religious.^ 

On the other hand, it must not be lost to view that there are 
sacred things of every degree, and that there are some in relation 
to which a man feels himself relatively at his ease. An amulet 
has a sacred character, yet the respect which it inspires is nothing 
exceptional. Even before his gods, a man is not always in such 
a marked state of inferiority ; for it very frequently happens 
that he exercises a veritable physical constraint upon them to 
obtain what he desires. He beats the fetich with which he is 
not contented, but only to reconcile himself with it again, if in 
the end it shows itself more docile to the wishes of its adorer. ^ 
To have rain, he throws stones into the spring or sacred lake 
where the god of rain is thought to reside ; he beheves that by 
this means he forces him to come out and show himself.^ More- 
over, if it is true that man depends upon his gods, this dependence 
is reciprocal. The gods also have need of man ; without offerings 
and sacrifices they would die. We shall even have occasion to 
show that this dependence of the gods upon their worshippers is 
maintained even in the most idealistic religions. 

But if a purely hierarchic distinction is a critérium at once too 
general and too imprecise, there is nothing left with which to 
characterize the sacred in its relation to the profane except 
their heterogeneity. However, this heterogeneity is sufficient to 
characterize this classification of things and to distinguish it 
from all others, because it is very particular : it is absolute. 
In all the history of human thought there exists no other example 
of two categories of things so profoundly differentiated or so 
radically opposed to one another. The traditional opposition 
of good and bad is nothing beside this ; for the good and the bad 
are only two opposed species of the same class, namely morals, 
just as sickness and health are two different aspects of the same 
order of facts, life, while the sacred and the profane have always 
and everywhere been conceived by the human mind as two 
distinct classes, as two worlds between which there is nothing in 

* This is not saying that these relations cannot take a religious character. 
But they do not do so necessarily. 

' Schultze, Fetichisntus , p. 129. 

* Examples of these usages will be found in Frazer, Golden Bough, 2 edit., 
I, pp. 81 fi. 

Définition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 39 

common. The forces which play in one are not simply those 
which are met with in the other, but a little stronger ; they are 
of a different sort. In different religions, this opposition has 
been conceived in different ways. Here, to separate these two 
sorts of things, it has seemed sufficient to localize them in different 
parts of the physical universe ; there, the first have been put into 
an ideal and transcendental world, while the material world is 
left in full possession of the others. But howsoever much the 
forms of the contrast may vary,^ the fact of the contrast is uni- 

This is not equivalent to saying that a being can never pass from 
one of these worlds into the other : but the manner in which this 
passage is effected, when it does take place, puts into relief the 
essential duality of the two kingdoms. In fact, it implies a 
veritable metamorphosis. This is notably demonstrated by the 
initiation rites, such as they are practised by a multitude of 
peoples. This initiation is a long series of ceremonies with the 
object of introducing the young man into the religious life : for 
the first time, he leaves the purely profane world where he 
passed his first infancy, and enters into the world of sacred 
things. Now this change of state is thought of, not as a simple 
and regular development of pre-existent germs, but as a trans- 
formation iotius suhstantiae — of the whole being. It is said that 
at this moment the young man dies, that the person that he was 
ceases to exist, and that another is instantly substituted for it. 
He is re-bom under a new form. Appropriate ceremonies are 
felt to bring about this death and re-birth, which are not under- 
stood in a merely symbolic sense, but are taken literally. ^ Does 
this not prove that between the profane being which he was and 
the religious being which he becomes, there is a break of con- 
tinuity ? 

This heterogeneity is even so complete that it frequently 
degenerates into a veritable antagonism. The two worlds are 
not only conceived of as separate, but as even hostile and jealous 
rivals of each other. Since men cannot fully belong to one except 

* The conception according to which the profajie is opposed to the sacred, 
just as the irrational is to the rational, or the intelligible is to the mysterious, 
is only one of the forms under which this opposition is expressed. Science being 
once constituted, it has taken a profane character, especially in the eyes of the 
Christian religions ; from that it appears as though it could not be applied to 
sacred things. 

* See Frazer, On Some Ceremonies of the Central Australian Tribes m Australian 
Association for the Advancement of Science, igoi, pp. 313 it. This conception is 
also of an extreme generality. In India, the simple participation in the sacrificial 
act has the same effects ; the sacrificer, by the mere act of entering within the 
circle of sacred things, changes his personality. (See, Hubert and Mauss, Essai 
sur le Sacrifice in the Année Sociologique, II, p. loi.) 

40 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

on condition of leaving the other completely, they are exhorted 
to withdraw themselves completely from the profane world, in 
order to lead an exclusively religious life. Hence comes the 
monasticism which is artificially organized outside of and apart 
from the natural environment in which the ordinary man leads 
the life of this world, in a different one, closed to the first, and 
nearly its contrary. Hence comes the mystic asceticism whose 
object is to root out from man all the attachment for the profane 
world that remains in him. From that come all the forms of 
religious suicide, the logical working-out of this asceticism ; for 
the only manner of fully escaping the profane life is, after all, 
to forsake all life. 

The opposition of these two classes manifests itself outwardly 
with a visible sign by which we can easily recognize this very 
special classification, wherever it exists. Since the idea of the 
sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the 
profane in the thought of men, and since we picture a sort of 
logical chasm between the two, the mind irresistibly refuses to 
allow the two corresponding things to be confounded, or even to 
be merely put in contact with each other ; for such a promiscuity, 
or even too direct a contiguity, would contradict too violently 
the dissociation of these ideas in the mind. The sacred thing is 
par excellence that which the profane should not touch, and cannot 
touch with impunity. To be sure, this interdiction cannot go so 
far as to make all communication between the two worlds im- 
possible ; for if the profane could in no way enter into relations 
with the sacred, this latter could be good for nothing. But, in 
addition to the fact that this establishment of relations is always 
a delicate operation in itself, demanding great precautions and 
a more or less complicated initiation, ^ it is quite impossible, unless 
the profane is to lose its specific characteristics and become sacred 
after a fashion and to a certain degree itself. The^two classes 
cannot even approachjeacjh^other an d keep their own nature at 
the same time. 

Thus we arrive at the first critérium of religious beliefs. Un- 
doubtedly there are secondary species within these two funda- 
mental classes which, in their turn, are more or less incompatible 
with each other. ^ But the real characteristic of religious pheno- 
mena is that they always suppose a bipartite division of the whole 
universe, known and knowable, into two classes which embrace 
all that exists, but which radically exclude each other. Sacred 

* See what was said of the initiation above, p. 39. 

* We shall point out below how, for example, certain species of sacred things 
exist, between which there is an incompatibility as all-exclusive as that between 
the sacred and the profane (Bk. Ill, ch. v, § 4). 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 41 

things are those which the interdictions protect and isolate ; 
profane things, those to which these interdictions are applied 
and which must remain at a distance from the first. Religious 
beliefs are the representations which express the nature of sacred 
things and the relations which they sustain, either with each 
other or with profane things. Finally, rites are the rules of 
conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in 
the presence of these sacred objects. 

When a certain number of sacred things sustain relations of 
co-ordination or subordination with each other in such a way as 
to form a system having a certain unity, but which is not com- 
prised within any other system of the same sort, the totality of 
these beliefs and their corresponding^ rites-eonstitutes a religion. 
FronPthis définition it is seen that a religion is not necessarily 
contained within one sole and single idea, and does not proceed 
from one unique principle which, though varying according to 
the circumstances under which it is applied, is nevertheless at 
bottom always the same : it is rather a whole made up of distinct 
and relatively individualized parts. Each homogeneous group 
of sacred things, or even each sacred thing of some importance, 
constitutes a centre of organization about which gravitate a 
group of beliefs and rites, or a particular cult ; there is no religion, 
howsoever unified it may be, which does not recognize a plurality 
of sacred things. Even Christianity, at least in its Catholic form, 
admits, in addition to the divine personality which, incidentally, 
is triple as well as one, the Virgin, angels, saints, souls of the dead, 
etc. Thus ji^religion^annotjbe reduced to one single cult generally, 
but rather consists in a system of cults, each endowed with a 
certain autonomy. Also, this autonomy is variable. Sometimes 
they are arranged in a hierarchy, and subordinated to some pre- 
dominating cult, into which they are finally absorbed ; but some- 
times, also, they are merely rearranged and united. The religion 
which we are going to study will furnish us with an example of 
just this latter sort of organization. 

At the same time we find the explanation of how there can be 
groups of religious phenomena which do not belong to any special 
religion ; it is because they have not been, or are no longer, a 
part of any religious system. If, for some special reason, one of 
the cults of which we just spoke happens to be maintained while 
the group of which it was a part disappears, it survives only in a 
disintegrated condition. That is what has happened to many 
agrarian cults which have survived themselves as folk-lore. In 
certain cases, it is not even a cult, but a simple ceremony or 
particular rite which persists in this way.^ 

^ This is the case with certain marriage and funeral rites, for example. 

42 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

Although this definition is only preliminary, it permits us to 
see in what terms the problem which necessarily dominates the 
science of religions should be stated. When we believed that 
sacred beings could be distinguished from others merely by the 
greater intensity of the powers attributed to them, the question 
of how men came to imagine them was sufficiently simple : it was 
enough to demand which forces had, because of their exceptional 
_energy, been able to strike the human imagination forcefully 
• enough to inspire religious sentiments. But if, as we have sought 
to establish, sacred things differ in nature from profane things, 
if they have a wholly different essence, then the problem is 
more complex. For we mu st first of all ask what has been able 
to lead men to see Jn ihe^-W.arld_two -heterogeneous and incom- 
patible worlds, though nothing in sensible experience seems able 
-to suggest the idea of so radical a duality to them. 


However, this definition is not yet complete, for it is equally 
applicable to two sorts of facts which, while being related to each 
other, must be distinguished nevertheless : these are magic and 

Magic, too, is made up of beliefs and rites. Like religion, it 
has its myths and its dogmas ; only they are more elementary, 
undoubtedly because, seeking technical and utilitarian ends, it 
does not waste its time in pure speculation. It has its ceremonies, 
sacrifices, lustrations, prayers, chants and dances as well. The 
beings which the magician invokes and the forces which he 
throws in play are not merely of the same nature as the forces 
and beings to which religion addresses itself ; very frequently, 
they are identically the same. Thus, even with the most inferior 
societies, the souls of the dead are essentially sacred things, and 
the object of religious rites. But at the same time, they play a 
considerable rôle in magic. In Australia ^ as well as in Melanesia, * 
in Greece as well as among the Christian peoples,^ the souls of 
the dead, their bones and their hair, are among the intermediaries 
used the most frequently by the magician. Demons are also a 
common instrument for magic action. Now these demons are 
also beings surrounded with interdictions ; they too are separated 
and live in a world apart, so that it is frequently difficult to 

* See Spencer and Gillen, Native Tribes of Central Australia, pp. 534 ff. ; 
Northern Tribes of Central Australia, p. 463 ; Howitt, Native Tribes of S.E. 
Australia, pp. 359-361. 

* See Codrington, The Melanesians, ch. xii. 

* See Hubert, art. Magia in Dictionnaire des Antiquités. 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 43 

distinguish them from the gods properly so-called.^ Moreover, in 
Christianity itself, is not the devil a fallen god, or even leaving 
aside all question of his origin, does he not have a religious char- 
acter from the mere fact that the hell of which he has charge is 
something indispensable to the Christian religion ? There are 
even some regular and official deities who are invoked by the 
magician. Sometimes these are the gods of a foreign people ; 
for example, Greek magicians called upon Egyptian, Assyrian or 
Jewish gods. Sometimes, they are even national gods : Hecate 
and Diana were the object of a magic cult ; the Virgin, Christ 
and the saints have been utilized in the same way by Christian 
magicians. 2 

Then will it be necessary to say that magic is hardly dis- 
tinguishable from religion ; that magic is full of religion just as 
rehgion is full of magic, and consequently that it is impossible 
to separate them and to define the one without the other ? It is 
difficult to sustain this thesis, because of the marked repugnance 
of religion for magic, and in return, the hostility of the second 
towards the first. Magic takes a sort of professional pleasure in 
profaning holy things ; ^ in its rites, it performs the contrary of 
the rehgious ceremony.'* On its side, religion, when it has not 
condemned and prohibited magic rites, has always looked upon 
them with disfavour. As Hubert and Mauss have remarked, there 
is something thoroughly anti-religious in the doings of the 
magician.^ Whatever relations there may be between these two 
sorts of institutions, it is difficult to imagine their not being 
opposed somewhere ; and it is still more necessary for us to find 
where they are differentiated, as we plan to limit our researches 
to religion, and to stop at the point where magic commences. 

Here is how a line of demarcation can be traced between these 
two domains. 

The really religious beliefs are always common to a determined 
group, which makes profession of adhering to them and of prac- 
tising the rites connected with them. They are not merely 
received individually by all the members of this group ; they 
are something belonging to the group, and they make its unity. 
The individuals which compose it feel themselves united to each 
other by the simple fact that they have a common faith. A 

^ For example, in Melanesia, the tindalo is a spirit, now religious, now magic 
(Codrington, pp. 125 ff., 194 S.). 

* See Hubert and Mauss, Théorie Générale de la Magie, in Artnée Sociologique, 
vol. VII, pp. 83-84. 

* For example, the host is profaned in the black mass. 

* One turns his back to the altar, or goes around the altar commencing by the 
left instead of by the right. 

' Loc. cit., p. 19. 

44 Elementary Forms of Religious Life 

society whose members are united by the fact that thçy think in 
the same way in regard to the sacred world and its relations with 
the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these 
common ideas into common practices, is what is called a Church. 
In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church. 
Sometimes the Church is strictly national, sometimes it passes 
the frontiers ; sometimes it embraces an entire people (Rome, 
Athens, the Hebrews), sometimes it embraces only a part of them 
(the Christian societies since the advent of Protestantism) ; 
sometimes it is directed by a corps of priests, sometimes it is 
almost completely devoid of any official directing body.^ But 
wherever we observe the religious life, we find that it has a definite 
group as its foundation. Even the so-called private cults, such 
as the domestic cult or the cult of a corporation, satisfy this 
condition ; for they are always celebrated by a group, the family 
or the corporation. Moreover, even these particular religions 
are ordinarily only special forms of a more general religion 
which embraces all ; ^ these restricted Churches are in reality 
only chapels of a vaster Church which, by reason of this very 
extent, merits this name still more.^ 

It is quite another matter with magic. To be sure, the belief 
in magic is always more or less general ; it is very frequently 
diffused in large masses of the population, and there are even 
peoples where it has as many adherents as the real religion. But 
it does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor 
in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no 
Church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals- 
who consult him, as between these individuals themselves, there 
are no lasting bonds which make them members of the same moral 
community, comparable to that formed IBy The believers in the 
'same god or the observers of the same cult. The magician has a 
clientele and not a Church, and it is very possible that his clients 
have no other relations between each other, or even do not know 
each other ; even the relations which they have with him are 
generally accidental and transient ; they are just like those of a 
sick man with his physician. The official and public character 

^ Undoubtedly it is rare that a ceremony docs not have some director at the 
moment when it is celebrated ; even* in the most crudely organized societies, 
there are generally certain men whom the importance of their social position 
points out to exercise a directing influence over the religious life (for example, 
the chiefs of the local groups of certain Australian societies). But this attribution 
of functions is still very uncertain. 

* At Athens, the gods to whom the domestic cult was addressed were only 
specialized forms of the gods of the city (Zei's ^-T?;(7ios, Zei;s ép/cetos). In the 
same way, in the Middle Ages, the patrons of the guilds were saints of the 

' For the name Church is ordinarily applied only to a group whose common 
beliefs refer to a circle of more special affairs. 

Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion 45 

with which he is sometimes invested changes nothing in this 
situation ; the fact that he works openly does not unite him 
more regularly or more durably to those who have recourse to 
his services. 

It is true that in certain cases, magicians form societies among 
themselves : it happens t